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François Legault, flanked by his Coalition Avenir Québec caucus members,Jacques Boissinot/The Globe and Mail

François Legault, the man who has a serious chance of becoming the next Quebec premier and arguably the most conservative one in at least 50 years, has spent nearly as much time as a professional politician as he did a business executive.

He seems genuinely surprised at the suggestion "businessman" would take second place to "politician" on his résumé. He starts doing the math out loud on what came after he founded Air Transat.

"I started in politics in 1998. I was 41. So that's 21 years in business, 18 in politics? Remember, I took two years off in there," he says in an interview, exhaling in relieved self-affirmation. "For me, I'm still more a businessman. I'm more a pragmatic guy. I like economics and finance. Those are the main reasons I'm in politics."

Mr. Legault began in politics in the post-referendum era as a Parti Québécois cabinet minister recruited by Lucien Bouchard. He left politics in 2009 and returned in 2011 to convert to federalism and co-found the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec.

Mr. Legault is a bit fussy about labels. He doesn't like to be called a federalist, even if he believes Quebec's place is within Canada. He wants to limit spending, cut taxes and immigration levels and seriously improve the business environment in Quebec, but denies he's all that right-wing.

Now, with 10 months until the next election, the 60-year-old Mr. Legault may be on the cusp of getting his hands on some economic levers. Three polls in a row have showed him in first place.

With a fixed election date of Oct. 1, the campaign is already on. The Liberals have scattered tax cuts and boosted spending after squeezing it for three years. Both Premier Philippe Couillard and Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée have focused attacks on Mr. Legault like never before since he founded the Coalition Avenir Québec in 2011.

Mr. Legault is often asked if he has peaked too soon. "Nobody would be unhappy about being first," he says. "But we can't take anything for granted."

Quebec's conservative third parties have been competitive before in pre-election polls only to fade to second or third as the question of Quebec independence polarized voters between the Liberals and PQ. This time is different, insists Mr. Legault.

The PQ is polling a distant third and has set aside the promise of a quick sovereignty vote. "At each and every election, the ballot question ends up being on the sovereignty of Quebec," Mr. Legault says. "For us, it's clear. Our project is within Canada. This will be the first election in years that the real issue will be a worn-out, corrupt government, not the sovereignty of Quebec."

Mr. Legault joined the PQ in 1998, he says, because he believed he could "control the business plan better with 100 per cent" of the ability to tax and spend government money. "I realized maybe 10 years ago we don't need sovereignty to increase wealth, and we don't need it to protect our language and values."

Now, Mr. Legault says his long-term national goal is to get Quebec off federal equalization payments, $11.1-billion that accounts for 10 per cent of the provincial budget. It's a task he admits would take at least 20 years even in an unprecedented economic boom. "There's no good reason we should be 20 per cent poorer than the rest of Canada," he says.

Mr. Legault was raised in the western Montreal suburb of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue where his father was the postmaster and his mother a part-time cashier at the A&P store. He is married and has two sons in their 20s; he says he can still compete with them on the tennis court but "only for about 20 minutes."

He studied accounting and worked as an auditor and in finance before borrowing $50,000 in 1986 to help found Air Transat. He cashed out with $10-million when he entered politics 12 years later. "The reason I can be independent today is because of business," he says.

Mr. Legault might be best known outside his province as the one of the lead players in Quebec's never-ending struggle to define the place of cultural minorities alongside the francophone majority.

When Mr. Couillard's Liberals passed Bill 62 (now temporarily suspended by the courts while it is challenged), which would impose limits on wearing face-covering clothing when getting or giving public services, Mr. Legault accused the government of not going far enough. He wants to legislate a ban on all religious symbols for public servants in positions of authority right down to teachers. All public servants would be barred from covering their faces.

When the Liberals set annual immigration targets at 50,000, Mr. Legault says it was 10,000 too many. Mr. Legault proposes to spend the same money integrating fewer immigrants to ensure they speak French and can find a job. He then wants to test new arrivals after a few years for French and commitment to cultural values, such as respect for gender equality.

Mr. Legault's opponents say he is pandering to intolerant segments of Quebec society. Mr. Legault says his goal is to calm down some Quebeckers who see threats in cultural diversity.

"We need to at least send the signal that we will accept people who share our values," Mr. Legault says. "It's true extremists represent less than 1 per cent [of immigrants]), but because of terrorism it's normal the population overreacts. If you don't want to see something like what happened with Mr. Trump getting elected in the United States, you have to do something to reassure the population."

But for Mr. Legault it's all about the economy – an obsession that also scares some people. In 1993, he told a Globe and Mail reporter that being "lean and mean" was the key to airline success. His critics fear he will apply the same principles to government. Quebec unions held a news conference Wednesday to warn that Mr. Legault will dismantle public services.

Mr. Legault points out that in elections past he's promised more education spending than his rivals. "I call my party more pragmatic than left or right," he says.

Quebeckers have 10 months to decide if it is a direction they want.