Along with hockey, politics is a national sport in Quebec. But even the most passionate political observers are close to overdosing as they have watched a string of four televised debates in the past week alone.
At the centre of them all was Pauline Marois, the perceived frontrunner with 10 days to go until the election. Not known to be a great debater, the Parti Québécois leader has made every effort to come across as calm and authoritative – premier material. All this while avoiding swipes from her left and from her right, from the ultra-sovereigntist and from the federalist, not to forget the disillusioned separatist sitting in between.
The mere fact that she was there is remarkable. Just a year ago, her 31-year political career looked all but over after a series of resignations threatened her leadership of a party notoriously prone to self-destruction.
But she weathered the storm with a resilience Quebeckers came to admire, and they nicknamed her "Dame de béton" – The Concrete Lady. But the betrayal of the seven MNAs – sparked by a controversial bill that could help Quebec City bring back an NHL franchise – left cracks in the concrete. Four of the defectors (including former premier Jacques Parizeau's wife, Lisette Lapointe) were highly regarded within the party as well as being diehard separatists.
So to win the party back, Ms. Marois is going where no PQ leader has been before: She proposes a stiffer language law and new rules that will make it harder for immigrants who don't speak French to run for public office.
Such a hardline approach has the English community reeling and even made waves within the PQ ranks.
"I am not looking for a head-on confrontation with the English community," Ms. Marois says from her campaign bus en route to Quebec City. "But we need to take clear measures to indicate that French is the workplace language of Quebec."
And the strategy seems to have sparked an astonishing comeback: According to the latest polls, Pauline Marois, now 63, could become the first woman to govern Quebec.
With her campaign bus parked in front of the Cinéma Beaubien, an independent theatre that showcases Quebec films, Ms. Marois tries to make her way to Molson Park across the street. She is set to shower the cultural industry with millions, but resident of Rosemont intercept her at every step to shake her hand or take her picture.
In this popular Montreal neighbourhood, a small and sympathetic crowd quickly gathers, drinks in her every word and heckles journalists who pound the PQ leader for her flip-flop on citizen-initiated referendums.
The scene was inconceivable just a year ago. Within the PQ, she has always been seen as a moderate or a pragmatist, although no one has ever questioned her unwavering commitment to Quebec's independence.
Yet recent changes in the PQ's platform and her own campaign promises have radicalized the party on such so-called identity issues as language and citizenship rights. A petition signed by 15 per cent of all eligible voters – roughly 850,000 Quebeckers – could force a third referendum on sovereignty, according to the PQ's new commitment to citizen-initiated referendums.
"To reunite the party, she had to bring herself to adopt radical measures," observes a PQ éminence grise, who has counselled all of the party's leaders since René Lévesque.
But is Ms. Marois simply buying time and peace in the party by catering to hardline separatists – the balancing act all PQ leaders have had to master? Or has the former social worker, whose husband made a fortune in real estate (she's often caricaturized as Tintin's Castafiore because of her love for jewels and high-end heels), really turned radical? And who will be left to defend Canada if she wins and calls another referendum on sovereignty, which she plans to do at the earliest opportunity?
"If it were up to me, I would do it tomorrow morning," she says repeatedly – but she promptly adds: "I will hold a referendum when I will feel assured that Quebeckers want to form a country." Accordingly, she refuses to commit to a referendum in her first mandate.
Pauline Marois served under all of the PQ's premiers and remained loyal to them, observes a former Parizeau adviser. "This is the first time that she will set the pace, and no one knows if she will walk briskly or slowly," he notes. "Half of the PQ members I speak to are convinced she is in a hurry, while the other half is as convinced that she will take her time."
If she keeps her cards close to her chest on a referendum, there is no such evasiveness when it comes to protecting the French language.
A PQ government would make Bill 101 more strict and extend the reach of the law, which protects the right to work in French to companies with as few as 11 employees. "More and more immigrants go to work for small businesses," Ms Marois explains. We need to take clear measures to indicate that French is the workplace language of Quebec."
Controversially, the bill would force students to attend a French CEGEP (Quebec's two-year program between high school and university), unless their parents are Quebeckers who were schooled in English. "As an adult, you are free to study in English, but not in a public institution," says Ms. Marois, who has herself tried for years to improve her command of English.
This bold stance has been greeted with uneasiness even within her own ranks. Longtime PQ adviser Louis Bernard even came out publicly against it: "How far will we go?"
The real language battleground
Students leaving Montreal's Dawson College chatter loudly as they grab a Bixi rental bike or head to the subway, both French and English accents clearly audible. Al- most one in five is francophone, and one in four allophone.
Many of them come from less-affluent districts, says history teacher Frédéric Bastien, and cannot afford private-school immersion programs. "These are Hait- ians or North Africans or Latinos, who come here to learn English and improve their chances of getting a better job. After 11 years of French schooling, they don't suddenly become anglophones."
Mr. Bastien describes himself as a nationalist, and says Ms. Marois should focus on anglophones: Almost 30 per cent of Quebec's anglos cannot converse in French, according to a 2010 Statistics Canada study.
Language law is always an explosive issue, but Ms. Marois created an uproar this week by announcing a PQ government would require anyone running for public office to pass a French proficiency test – part of a beefed-up version of a bill on Quebec citizenship introduced in 2007.
When civil-rights advocates blasted the measure as unconstitutional, she had to retreat. Only new immigrants would be subject to the test, with current Quebec residents exempted.
"She understands that Quebeckers won't say yes to independence on economic grounds only – they will do it for emotional reasons, hence the importance of bringing identity issues to the forefront of the debate," says Joseph Facal, now a political commentator and business professor at HEC Montreal.
Although a former PQ minister, however, he was born in Uruguay, and has serious reservations about restricting access to public life on the ability to speak French.
Ms. Marois also had to backtrack this week on the citizen-initiated referendums (dubbed RIP for référendum d'initiative populaire).
Her PQ colleagues, past and present, realize Ms. Marois went along with the RIP idea reluctantly. "She knew deep down that this is not the way to go with such a fundamental decision, but she had to make concessions," Prof. Facal says.
Jean-Herman Guay, professor of applied politics at the University of Sherbrooke, says she "is torn between two competing realities." On one side, she needs to reassure her base; on the other, she has to tone down her discourse, because most Quebeckers are "fed up with talk of another referendum."
And yet "if a petition with 850,000 signatures lands on her desk tomorrow morning, she is going to have an incredible amount of pressure from her party to go ahead with a referendum," says François Legault, the former PQ minister who now leads the competing Coalition Avenir Québec.
It will be difficult to temper the passions of the hardliners, whose ranks have swelled with the arrival of star recruits such as former journalists Pierre Duchesne and Jean-François Lisée. "That's the only reason Lisée (adviser to PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard) came back to politics," notes one well-connected Péquiste.
Even Ms. Marois admits this: "I won't stop people who want to have a referendum," she said during her one-on-one debate with the CAQ's Mr. Legault. "It almost goes without saying," she says from her bus, before adding that the National Assembly will have the final word.
In what circumstances would she go against the will of 850,000 Quebeckers? "Only for a question of national interest," she says, offering no more explanation.
One thing is certain: The federalist forces are weak in Quebec – and can't count on Mr. Legault, a former separatist. He now says he will vote against Quebec's independence. In his debate with Ms. Marois he stated: "I will neither promote sovereignty, nor defend Canadian unity."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have a hard time seducing Quebeckers with his social and environmental policies (on young offenders, the gun registry and fast-tracked environmental-impact studies), which clash with their beliefs. Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair is in a better position, and is toying with the idea of launching a provincial New Democratic Party.
The federal Liberal Party is still under reconstruction. Denis Coderre, one of its more visible leaders, is eying Montreal's city hall. And the possible leadership of Justin Trudeau may galvanize sovereigntists who recall their rivalry with his father.
Ms. Marois is well aware of the vacuum. "What Quebeckers are seeing in Ottawa might bring them to think about it," she says of independence. "But then, we still have to convince them."
And given Quebeckers' referendum fatigue, that will be no easy feat.