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Keeping Quebec voters' loyalty will be tall order for NDP

Jack Layton during an appearance on Tout le Monde en Parle on april 4, 2011

Guests on the semi-circular set of Tout le monde en parle, Radio-Canada's enduring and wildly popular Sunday-night gabfest, typically enter by descending a white central staircase.

This is, of course, an issue if you're a 60-year-old who has recently undergone hip surgery.

So when crutch-wielding NDP Leader Jack Layton showed up for a taping in late March, a dry run was in order to ensure he could navigate the steps.

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"He wasn't announced, he just came out and people in the crowd started applauding spontaneously," said long-time NDP press secretary Karl Bélanger, who was in the studio. "That hadn't happened before."

If there is to be a creation myth surrounding the orange surge in Quebec, Mr. Layton's Tout le monde en parle appearance on Apr. 3 will surely be in the opening stanza.

The legend will rhapsodize about the extraordinary series of events that unfolded in the days and weeks afterward - what's less clear is what will be written about their medium-term effects.

Quebec's French-speaking majority is arguably as distant from the heart of Canadian federal power as it has been since Confederation, a disconnect sovereigntists see as fertile ground.

The Conservatives mustered a majority with five MPs from Quebec - the province's feeblest representation in a majority government since the 1917 conscription crisis. True, four of those MPs are in cabinet, but a CROP poll last week found a majority of respondents were dissatisfied with the election result (including 47 per cent who voted for the NDP - the poll also found that roughly a third of NDP voters support sovereignty).

The May 2 vote saw the rest of Canada massively support a government Quebeckers overwhelmingly rejected, buttressing a key sovereigntist point: See? We really are different, they're not like us.

In the words of Tout le monde host Guy A. Lepage, who describes himself as an indépendantiste, "Quebec is far more isolated from the rest of Canada than it was after the last election."

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Mr. Lepage's program, a free-wheeling talk show that smudges the lines between hard-hitting journalism, celebrity schmoozing and variety programming, consistently attracts a viewership of 1.5 million per episode.

It's not a stretch to say the show both reflects Quebec's cultural, social and political zeitgeist and is influential in shaping it.

It has become a regular port of call for politicians of every stripe, with the notable exception of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Two days after Mr. Layton appeared, an Angus Reid poll in La Presse had the NDP running a strong second behind the Bloc - a first - and the polling numbers began trending upward.

It's perilous to draw a direct causal link; pollsters noted well before the campaign that Mr. Layton scored well in Quebec on attitudinal indicators.

And as Mr. Lepage said, "The public didn't suddenly decide to vote NDP because of Tout le monde en parle. … We're just a showcase."

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Still, it happened.

Federalist triumphalism notwithstanding, the Bloc Québécois's disintegration likely had as much to do with voter fatigue and the law of unintended consequences as anything Mr. Layton did or said - though Quebec-friendly promises on language and the Constitution didn't hurt.

There is a sense, even among some Quebec federalists, that reducing the Bloc to a fractious rump will galvanize sovereigntists for a provincial election that is likely less than two years away.

The Parti Québécois faces questions of its own - over the effectiveness of Leader Pauline Marois and the rise of nationalist rivals on the right and left - but there is hope.

"Is this going to allow for a tightening of the ranks and increase resolve? I believe so," said Concordia University political scientist Guy Lachapelle, who has long ties to the PQ.

The argument goes that Quebec is giving one final chance to a federalist party to advance its interests, which could be a tall order for the NDP.

One thing Mr. Layton has going for him, Mr. Lepage argued, is that he is generally held in high regard - a situation that predates the last campaign.

When the NDP Leader, a frequent guest, pitched up to the studio on April 3, Mr. Lepage didn't have any particular inkling a wave was building.

Looking back, he recalled the convalescing Mr. Layton drew a warm audience response (he entered to Richard Desjardins's ditty Le bon gars - The Good Guy).

"When you're far from power, you can afford to be virtuous. And who's against virtue?" he said. "Especially when it's delivered by a nice, friendly gentleman. And that's what he is: a nice, friendly gentleman."

How long the warm feelings last is an open question.

On Monday, tens of thousands celebrated La journée des patriotes, and the annual Fête Nationale concert in Montreal next month is expected to attract 300,000. As Mr. Lepage, who is hosting the event, pointed out: "I think Parc Maisonneuve will be packed on June 24, and people are going to be screaming Quebec the same way they always do."

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