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Muslim women demonstrate against the proposed Quebec charter of values while a tour bus passes by Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at the legislature in Quebec City.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec's intense debate over restrictions on religious minorities was supposed to peel the blue paint off the walls of the National Assembly to start the fall sitting. But instead of pressing the issue Tuesday, the three main provincial parties pulled back to survey the changing political landscape.

One week after introducing a plan for a dress code limiting religious expression in public-sector workplaces, the Parti Québécois, governing with a minority, tried to tone things down. What seemed like a handy wedge issue for the party a week ago instead has split the sovereignty movement and proved less popular than anticipated in polls.

It has also threatened to spin out of control on the street, where daily anecdotes emerge about angry confrontations between white, francophone Quebeckers and hijab-wearing Muslim women.

Back from a trip to Africa, Jean-François Lisée, the government minister seen as the architect of the PQ's "values" strategy, promised that the government is listening as it drafts legislation to impose a dress code in public-sector workplaces and suggest limits on how far enterprises need to go to accommodate the faithful.

"I'm calling on all Quebeckers to have a respectful debate about this and to be particularly concerned about our citizens who are wearing religious symbols, as is their right," Mr. Lisée said. "It is intolerable that anyone makes any negative comment or gesture to our citizens who make the legitimate choice of wearing these symbols."

Mr. Lisée saved some criticism for one of the PQ's favourite targets, blaming media in the rest of Canada for whipping up a fervour in defence of multiculturalism.

A rare visible minority member in the PQ ranks, Culture Minister Maka Kotto, advised minorities to set aside religious symbols. "If I wanted to play the mystic, I could go around with my panther's head on my chest," the native of Cameroon told reporters Tuesday. "It's my family totem. But I don't, because I adhere to what are accepted as the values of the society that welcomed me. It applies to me too."

The Coalition Avenir Québec is the third party in the legislature, but with a position closest to that of the PQ, it holds the future of the charter in its hands. While CAQ Leader François Legault made a show of pronouncing he was offering the PQ an "easy exit" Tuesday, he did not back down from any part of his party's position.

The PQ and CAQ are close on their respective policies: The PQ would ban "ostentatious" religious symbols among most public-sector employees, but allow small jewellery. The CAQ would ban all symbols, but only for certain people in positions of high authority, such as judges, jail guards and police officers. The CAQ adds teachers to the list because of the influence they have over children and the mandatory nature of public schooling.

Both parties would allow the crucifix to stand in the National Assembly, a key point widely decried as hypocritical, if the aim is to foster a secular state. They also agree on creating a framework to guide businesses and insitutions on how they accomodate religious minorities.

"I think we're prepared to make adjustments with the PQ," Mr. Legault said. "But our position is already a compromise within our caucus, which had a long discussion on this issue."

Mr. Legault said it is vital Quebec move on quickly from such a divisive debate. It may also be vital politically for his party, which has seen popular support fade as the PQ moved into identity wedge politics, the former domain of his party and its predecessor, the Action démocratique du Québec.

The Liberals under Philippe Couillard never intended to spend too much time on the values debate, preferring instead to highlight PQ failures on the economy and public finances. A one-two punch of fresh revelations relating to an ethical lapse and corruption quickly derailed that plan.

Liberal Member of the National Assembly Pierre Marsan was forced to apologize for using the awarding of a daycare permit to raise funds in a Montreal synagogue. (Daycare permits handed to Liberal donors are the subject of just one set of the corruption allegations that have dogged the PQ.) The chief electoral officer said late Tuesday he will investigate.

Mr. Couillard condemned his MNA's conduct, but was also forced to explain why he kept hidden from the public – and his own caucus – the news that anti-corruption investigators raided Quebec Liberal Party headquarters in July. His own MNA, Norbert Morin, said keeping the raid a secret was a mistake.

Mr. Couillard explained that the anti-corruption squad took the rare step of keeping the raid a secret, so he didn't want to interfere. He also said the Liberals would have been accused of trying to hide the news under the Lac-Mégantic train disaster, which took place around the same time. "We were damned if we do, damned if we don't," Mr. Couillard said.

With a report from Bertrand Marotte in Montreal