Pauline Marois has opened a new front on Quebec identity amid poll results showing her party falling further behind the Liberals and flagging badly among key francophone constituents.
On the secular charter, the leader tried to strike a conciliatory tone while maintaining a hard line, saying a Parti Québécois government would try to help find new jobs for public servants who are dismissed because they refuse to accept the ban on wearing religious symbols. She also promised to toughen the language law known as Bill 101 to make it cover federally chartered companies, a step that would certainly be challenged in court.
Ms. Marois made the appeal to francophones on Wednesday just as a new Ipsos Reid poll showed support for the PQ has continued to collapse among French-speaking voters. The poll showed her party tied with the Liberals in support among francophones at 31 per cent – the first time they have been equal in more than a year. A poll early in the campaign had the PQ ahead 45 to 23 in the key swing demographic.
"It's true, we rarely see the two parties at the same level of support among francophones," said Luc Durand, president of the Quebec branch of Ispos Reid.
Over all, the poll conducted for CTV News had the Liberals holding steady at 37 per cent while the PQ fell four percentage points to 28, confirming a slide that has continued since early in the campaign, which Ms. Marois's party entered as the front-runner within reach of a majority government. If the poll's numbers held until voting day on Monday, the Liberals would easily win a majority.
The main recipients of lost PQ support were the Coalition Avenir Québec, sitting at 21 per cent, and Québec Solidaire at 14. The two parties have risen three percentage points each since an Ispos poll two weeks ago. Their leaders, the CAQ's François Legault and Françoise David of QS, were credited with the stronger performances in last week's debate.
On Wednesday, Ms. Marois tried to return to identity issues, pledging to "accompany" – or ease the transition for - people who would lose their jobs in the public service over the proposed ban on religious garments such as hijabs and turbans. It was the PQ's first clear admission that people would be fired if the secular charter is enacted.
Ms. Marois said the government would help public servants find work in the private sector, although nothing in her draft legislation would provide for such assistance.
"If a person refuses to comply, then he or she will have a choice to make. We have people who can help employees relocate in another job. That's not what we want. We want them to stay in the public service," she said.
Mr. Couillard could barely hide his disdain.
"It's total confusion, disorganization and the unravelling of a political party that has totally abandoned its principles," Mr. Couillard said. "It's crazy."
"We're talking about daycare workers, teachers, nurses. She says she's going to accompany people. Where? To Ontario? Are we really going to send nurses to Ontario?"
Ms. Marois also suggested the transition period for enforcing the secular charter could be extended in some circumstances. The current bill allows five years for hospital, university and municipal workers and one year for other public servants.
On language, the PQ leader promised new legislation that would force all companies in Quebec that are registered under a federal charter to comply with Bill 101. Federally chartered companies such as banks are not required to follow the legislation, which requires workplaces to allow employees to use French exclusively, but 60 per cent of them do voluntarily.
"I want 100 per cent of companies to comply," Ms. Marois said. "If we need to legislate, we will legislate."
Ms. Marois said she would make her case before the courts if necessary.
Former Liberal leader Jean Charest made a similar proposal in the 2012 campaign, and was forced to back down because the province had no jurisdiction over federally chartered companies. Ms. Marois indicated she would be willing to fight so that "Quebec can stand up" for its rights.
Mr. Couillard said he has no interest in extending the law to federal companies, saying the PQ language plan, like the charter, is all about preparing the ground for an eventual referendum campaign and Quebec independence.