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Coalition Avenir Quebec leader Francois Legault, centre, is greeted by local candidates as he arrives at a sports bar in Quebec City on Tuesday.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

A controversial remark by Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault that young Quebeckers should work hard in school like Asian students has forced an issue that economists recognize but politicians seldom broach – the province's relatively low productivity – into the Quebec election campaign.

Mr. Legault insisted on Tuesday that he's only warning that young Quebeckers will one day face a reckoning if they expect the same standard of living when their productivity trails competitors in Asia and elsewhere.

The CAQ Leader's complaints, aimed at a strain of small-c conservative Quebeckers, worried about the province's economic future, may also resonate with voters who view younger Quebeckers as spoiled, symbolized by months of pot-banging student strikes. In both cases, Mr. Legault is working Liberal Leader Jean Charest's turf. But his preaching instead opened a flank for opponents' attacks and derision from young Quebeckers already heavily attuned to politics in a year of student strikes.

At the heart of the controversy is the issue of what kind of economic future Quebec should strive for – and what sacrifices it is willing to make. Quebeckers work fewer hours per year, on average, than people in Ontario and the United States, and the province's labour productivity is lower that of most developed countries, and growing relatively slowly, according to a report by the Centre for Productivity and Prosperity at Montreal's École des Hautes Études Commerciales.

It erupted on Monday night, when Mr. Legault told a group of seniors that he feared young Quebeckers are too interested in la belle vie – the good life – while parents in Asian countries "must stop their children from studying at night because it's nearly making them sick."

Whatever the merits of Mr. Legault's work-ethic argument, the issue – Quebec's global economic competitiveness – is what brought the former PQ cabinet minister and Air Transat executive back into politics at the head of the new coalition.

Mr. Charest, a politician with centre-right leanings who took power in 2003 promising labour-law reforms and is again running on the economy, might be expected also to embrace the issue.

But public figures who call for Quebeckers to work more – as former premier Lucien Bouchard did in 2006 – have ruffled feathers, and instead Mr. Charest accused Mr. Legault of calling Quebeckers lazy – shifting his attack toward the rising threat of Mr. Legault's new party and away from the Parti Québécois' Pauline Marois – to accuse the CAQ Leader of prejudice and insulting Quebeckers.

"It is, from Mr. Legault, a way of thinking that's based on prejudices," Mr. Charest said, adding: "Don't come and tell me Quebeckers and young Quebeckers aren't hard-working."

Mr. Legault didn't back off. On Tuesday, he offered another controversial argument: that it is their parents' fault. "I'm not blaming youths, I'm blaming the values that we, as parents, impart to our young people," he said. "We must impart more the values of effort and achievement."

Mr. Charest, at a rally in Thetford Mines on Tuesday night, shot back: "Tomorrow, he's going to blame the grandparents."

On the same day, the PQ's Ms. Marois suffered her own political embarrassment in trying to preach a view of what Quebec should be.

Responding to the sometimes controversial debates over "reasonable accommodations" in the issue of whether immigrants should be required to fit into Quebec's dominant cultures, Ms. Marois unveiled a secularism charter, which would bar provincial civil servants from wearing an obvious sign of their religion, such as a turban or a veil.

But a PQ candidate, Djemila Benhabib, who accompanied Ms. Marois at her announcement, admitted she still believes that secularism means removing the crucifix from the National Assembly. Ms. Marois, however, insists the crucifix should stay, as part of Quebec's "cultural heritage."

Ms. Benhabib, an author who has written about her family's persecution by Islamists in Algeria, said she still sees a contradiction between secularism and the crucifix, but will argue her point inside the PQ.