Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard is facing questions from his opponents and critics over integrity and his nationalist credentials similar to the aggressive attacks he fended off in Thursday's leaders' debate.
With 10 days left in the Quebec election campaign before the April 7 vote, the Parti Québécois and the Coalition Avenir Québec took aim at francophone voters Friday by accusing Mr. Couillard, the frontrunner in the race, of failing to stand up for the French language and Quebec values.
"The Liberal party has nothing to offer to protect the French language," PQ Leader Pauline Marois said. "Philippe Couillard, who aspires to being premier of the only French language nation on the continent, wants us to put aside what truly distinguishes us."
CAQ Leader François Legault was even more aggressive, saying Mr. Couillard had no plans to protect the French language or to adopt the CAQ's version of a secular charter that would include prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols by public servants in position of authority.
Mr. Couillard's made a strong defence of bilingualism in the debate, departing from a succession of Liberal leaders who fear they will be cast as soft on protecting the French language if they talk too much about bilingualism. The Liberal Leader maintained learning English is essential for many Quebeckers who want to succeed at work. He said he was not promoting bilingualism, just recognizing it is a fact of life in Quebec.
"There's not a single parent in Quebec who doesn't hope for their children to be bilingual. It's a fantastic asset," Mr. Couillard said Friday. He chastised his opponents for casting the English language as something to be feared.
"When they talk about threat, about peril, we're trying to make people afraid. To make them fear some kind of external threat, to make them think they are under siege. We are strong in Quebec," he said.
Mr. Legault then accused Mr. Couillard of lacking integrity and transparency by refusing to explain his business dealings with Arthur Porter, the former head of the McGill University Hospital Centre, who faces fraud charges. Mr. Legault insisted the Liberal Leader must release the financial statements and business plan he developed with Mr. Porter when he founded a consulting firm called Porter, Couillard and Associates Inc. from 2008 to 2010.
"I want to know what their business plan was," Mr. Legault said on Friday. "Mr. Couillard showed lack of judgment."
There was no business plan, according to Mr. Couillard. He produced a legal opinion which said the company he established with Dr. Porter never conducted any business before it was dissolved. Mr. Couillard said that he had a plan in 2010 to start a consulting business with Dr. Porter, who at the time was a highly esteemed administrator, but it never got off the ground. Allegations of fraud surfaced the following year. Dr. Porter is in Panama fighting extradition.
Heading into the final week of the campaign, the CAQ Leader was fighting for his political survival. He appealed to soft nationalist and conservative voters who have been lured to the Liberals in a bid to stop a PQ majority and the possibility of another referendum on sovereignty.
While Mr. Couillard campaigned on the economy, Ms. Marois promised to adopt a major reform of the French language charter if she forms a majority government. The new language bill would stop short of requiring francophone students to attend a French-language college before attending university, as the PQ members demanded in the past. Ms. Marois said she would require English-language college students to master the French language in order to graduate, but rejected coercive measures. She also refused to say whether the exemption granted to francophone military families from requiring their children to attend a French language school will be lifted.
In her effort to appear tough on language, Ms. Marois was trying to deflect charges in the sovereignty movement that she was weak on Quebec independence. When asked during a television morning show how she planned on gauging whether Quebeckers were ready for a referendum she again sidestepped the issue. "It is something you feel, it is something you hear. You gauge with polls and with focus groups. It seems to me quite simple," she said.
But when asked if polls showed 50 per cent of Quebeckers wanted a referendum that it would be enough for her to hold one, Ms. Marois refused to answer. "This is not an election about a referendum it is about choosing a government," she said repeatedly.
Even one her closest advisers, PQ candidate Jean-François Lisée, backtracked on earlier comments where he expressed impatience about holding another referendum. "I have always been optimistic about sovereignty. I have never been as pessimistic about it as I am now. I was struck by the signal sent to us by Quebeckers during this campaign….They don't want one and if they don't want one there won't be any," Mr. Lisée said.