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Voter-rich Laval could make or dash Charest’s chances

Audrey Lafond, right, and her spouse, Cedrick Billequey, play with their 2-year-old daughter, Juliette, at a soccer game in Laval-des-Rapides, Que., Aug. 21, 2012.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

If he's hoping to win re-election Sept. 4, Jean Charest might want to head over to meet the soccer moms and dads at D'Argenson Park in Laval one evening. But he may require David Beckham-like footwork to score any political points.

Here by the soccer pitch in Laval-des-Rapides, a bellwether riding whose voters have a consistent record of picking the party that forms the government, Mr. Charest faces a daunting challenge. To win a fourth term for his Liberals, he needs to win the hearts of suburban francophone voters like husband-and-wife soccer parents Cédrick Billequey and Audrey Lafond. To listen to the couple, however, it becomes apparent that the political courtship is in deep trouble.

Mr. Billequey and Ms. Lafond, working parents paying a mortgage and raising three young children, have voted Liberal steadfastly in the past. This time, fed up with Mr. Charest after nine years in power, they're looking at shifting their vote to François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec.

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"What I want is change," the 37-year-old Mr. Billequey, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, said as he watched his daughter in a practice. "Mr. Charest has stopped thinking outside the box. Mr. Legault could shake up Quebec, and Quebec needs it."

The hardening stance could turn into electoral disaster for Mr. Charest – a concern underscored by his campaign rally in Laval-des-Rapides on Thursday night, his third foray into the sprawling and voter-rich suburb of Laval since the campaign launch Aug. 1.

Couples like Mr. Billequey and Ms. Lafond belong to the key constituency of francophone suburban voters whose numbers tilt the balance in provincial elections. The Liberals have the support of only about one in five francophones, placing the party third in popularity among the province's majority. That disaffection was evident among parents at the tree-lined D'Argenson Park in Laval-des-Rapides, where the Liberal incumbent, junior finance minister Alain Paquet, is facing a fierce three-way battle to hold onto his seat.

In conversations with a dozen voters, not a single one planned to vote for Mr. Charest.

Some cited specific grievances like corruption allegations and the handling of the student crisis. "The way he treated those students, it's as if he didn't care about them," said Stéphanie Gévrey, who plans to vote for the Parti Québécois. "It's fine not to give into the street, but he was arrogant."

Others expressed frustration with the status quo and voiced a desire for a fundamental shift in direction in Quebec, views similar to those that helped usher the wave of New Democrat MPs into the province in the 2011 federal election.

Voter Jean-Philippe Ferland backed the NDP last year. Now he's favouring Mr. Legault's CAQ, which is campaigning on a centre-right platform that includes an overhaul of the provincial bureaucracy in education and health services.

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"In Quebec, we like big changes. And we're due for it," said Mr. Ferland, a public-sector administrator who was accompanying his two young daughters. "Left, right, it doesn't matter. All I can say is, 'Enough.' We have to change our way of doing things in Quebec."

Mr. Ferland is typical. Surveys by the polling firm CROP Inc. indicate that among Quebeckers who supported the NDP federally last year, the No. 1 choice in the upcoming provincial election is Mr. Legault's party.

Another part of the Liberals' challenge comes down to the leader himself. Mr. Charest's pitch of economic stewardship and social stability, aimed at middle-class voters like those in Laval, is butting up against an even greater liability: personal dislike and fatigue with his leadership.

Quebeckers have always been tepid toward Mr. Charest – suspicious of his political roots in Ottawa, his Tory past, even his bi-cultural upbringing – but their antipathy has veered into something verging on irrational, observers say. "Mr. Charest has become demonized among francophones. It's become a national sport," said political scientist Christian Dufour of the École nationale d'administration publique. "There's an aversion toward Mr. Charest and it's become an irrational phenomenon. It's like voters don't want to look at him any more."

Come Sept. 4, the outcome may pivot on the buzzword that returned over and over at D'Argenson Park: change. Quebec pollster Youri Rivest, vice-president at CROP, sees the possibility of a seismic shift in this Quebec election, one in which voters could turn away from the eternal debate over Quebec sovereignty. "There is a real desire to turn the page," Mr. Rivest said. "It's like we're turning a page of history in Quebec."

For Mr. Charest, the risk is that when the moment comes, voters may decide to change the team on the playing field.

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