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Parti Quebecois interim leader Stephane Bedard says Premier Philippe Couillard is under the sway of Saudi values, from the time he lived in the country in the 1990s.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard may be too influenced by a fundamentalist vision of Islam to impose a law enshrining secularism in the province, according to the Parti Québécois interim leader and several leadership hopefuls.

The concerted suggestion the Premier is under the sway of Saudi values, from the time he lived in the country in the 1990s, emerged Thursday from a caucus meeting as the PQ tries to revive the identity debate amid a leadership race.

"He seems quite steeped in [Saudi] values, that reality, that way of living together," said Stéphane Bédard, the PQ's interim leader. "It's one thing to go see how others live but we ask him not to import that reality here."

A brain surgeon, Mr. Couillard lived in Saudi Arabia from 1992 to 1996 when he worked in medicine and as an adviser to the Saudi health minister. The Saudi kingdom operates under a strict form of sharia law in which women's rights are limited and beheadings and floggings are legal punishment for criticizing the regime.

Mr. Couillard reacted angrily, saying Mr. Bédard's allegations border on defamation.

"If I was so inclined, I could sue," Mr. Couillard told The Canadian Press in Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending an economic forum. "But I'm not going to waste my time with an individual like that."

Quebec's debate over limiting religious influence is heating up again after recent terrorist attacks in Canada and France, the flogging of a Saudi blogger and a PQ leadership race.

While in government in 2013, the PQ proposed a "charter of values" that would have enshrined secularism as a fundamental value and included a ban on religious symbols, such as veils, from the public-sector work force.