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Despite the latest polls suggesting a rise in NDP support, Pierre Jacob is voting for the Bloc Qu�b�cois in the upcoming federal election, seen here posing in Montreal, April 22, 2011. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)
Despite the latest polls suggesting a rise in NDP support, Pierre Jacob is voting for the Bloc Qu�b�cois in the upcoming federal election, seen here posing in Montreal, April 22, 2011. (Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail)

Layton's leftist nationalism wins hearts and minds in Quebec Add to ...

Manon Chenier has voted without hesitation for the Bloc Québécois in every federal election since the party burst on the scene in 1993.

This time, the committed sovereigntist is leaning towards the NDP, which has typically struggled to reach double-digits in the popular vote and has just one Quebec MP (Thomas Mulcair).

"I'm very tempted," said the 54-year-old recycling plant worker from Thurso, Que., 35 kilometres east of Gatineau. "It's time for a change."

Ms. Chenier isn't alone. Change is on the minds of a surprising number of Quebeckers as the campaign enters its final week. For the first time, many voters are flirting with a party that's been an afterthought for decades.

So why Jack Layton's NDP, and why now?

"It's the big mystery, in the sense that no one saw this coming," said York University history professor Marcel Martel. For people who thought the election would be a repeat of 2008, the NDP surge offers the possibility of something "very exciting" in federal politics, he said.

The cheery, charismatic Mr. Layton has emerged as a serious player. Some polls show the NDP in a statistical tie with the separatist Bloc for the lead in the province. One even gave the NDP a five percentage-point lead.

Mr. Layton's pro-nationalist stance and commitments on health, education, seniors and the environment are a natural fit in the left-leaning province.

But there's clearly a lot more to the apparent surge of the NDP, which is now facing fierce counterattacks from the Bloc, Conservatives and Liberals. Quebeckers seem to genuinely like Mr. Layton and they see themselves reflected in the party's socially conscious, middle-class platform. And unlike previous NDP leaders, the Montreal-born Mr. Layton can speak to them comfortably in French (in an accent that's familiar to them) and put on a Canadiens jersey without seeming like an opportunist.

There may also be a bit of Bloc fatigue at a time when there are few emotional issues to spark sovereigntist passions.

Whether the surprisingly strong NDP showing in polls will actually translate into seats in Quebec come election day is another matter.

But all of the other parties are taking aim at the NDP. Over the weekend the Liberals launched a new attack ad, dismissing the NDP's economic platform as "science fiction."

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe has betrayed signs of concern over the NDP's rise, which could split the vote, allowing for Stephen Harper's Conservatives to hold onto or gain seats in the province at the Bloc's expense.

Bloc ally Pauline Marois - the Parti Québécois Leader - warned Quebeckers on the dangers of voting NDP, calling it a "federalist, centralizing party from Toronto."

And yet it's surprisingly easy to find Bloc sympathizers considering a jump to the NDP.

"I'm hesitating between the two," said Pierre Jacob, 53, a market research software trainer who has voted Bloc in the past.

"I like [the NDP's]social policies. I think we need a return to a more socially oriented approach after so much policy oriented towards the economy and corporations under the Conservatives," he said in an interview on Montreal's main commercial drag, St. Catherine Street.

The Bloc served its purpose over the years defending Quebec's interests, but the sovereigntist agenda is no longer very relevant, Mr. Jacob believes.

Collette Serret, a retired administrator, said she's a Liberal who has been won over by Mr. Layton's character.

"I love him," she said. "He's the most positive of all the leaders and he's proposing changes - for example, for the betterment of the environment - that I don't see coming from the Liberals and Conservatives."

Yvon Roy, a 68-year-old taxi driver from Gatineau, Que., is as much disappointed with the Bloc as he is drawn to the NDP. "They've been there for a few years, and it hasn't changed much," he said.

But other Bloc supporters remain unmoved. Jean-Louis Desrochers, a former Via Rail employee who lives in Mr. Duceppe's riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie in Montreal, isn't buying into the pro-Layton wave and the NDP.

"I can see how voters are tired of the old Liberal and Conservative lines, and that they're looking for something else, and Jack Layton is attractive as someone who says he's on their side. But he's still a federalist."

Pollster Nik Nanos said the NDP's strong showing in Quebec surveys is a function of both what the party is doing right, and the inability of the Bloc and the Liberals to find a compelling issue to run on.

"Duceppe and [Michael]Ignatieff have created an environment for the NDP to do well," Mr. Nanos said. "It drives Quebeckers to the NDP, which has credibility on health care."

NDP spokeswoman Kathleen Monk said the party's strong showing has been building for months - a function of the other parties' failure to deliver the goods since the last election on the environment, Afghanistan and the depressed forestry industry.

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