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Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault has often seemed irritable and frustrated in press scrums on the campaign trail.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Something has happened to François Legault on the way to his easy re-election.

The 65-year-old Coalition Avenir Québec Leader’s once most oft-cited political strengths – his fatherly demeanour, his simple way of speaking, his nostalgic vision of Quebec society – have increasingly come to be seen as liabilities that make him look out of touch with the modern realities of his pluralistic province.

“Between simplicity and simplism, there is nevertheless a line that [Mr. Legault] too often has a tendency to cross,” Le Devoir columnist Michel David wrote this month. “He is not lacking in common sense, far from it, but his binary vision of things sometimes prevents him from grasping the reality in all its complexity, to the point of negating it.”

A widely-panned debate performance, and a Tuesday Leger poll showing the CAQ losing ground to its four rival parties vying for seats in the Oct. 3 election, have served to shine a spotlight on Mr. Legault’s shortcomings and his lacklustre campaign. At 38 per cent, CAQ support is a far cry from its 51-per-cent peak in 2020, during the early months of the pandemic.

The CAQ Leader has often seemed irritable and frustrated in press scrums on the campaign trail. During last week’s debate broadcast on the TVA network, he rarely smiled and continually pursed his lips as his younger rivals did verbal cartwheels around him.

Only 9 per cent of respondents to the Leger poll, which did not come with a margin of error, said Mr. Legault won the TVA debate, compared to 18 per cent who chose Québec Solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and 13 per cent who chose Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon.

During the debate, Mr. Legault, who has refused to acknowledge the existence of systemic discrimination in Quebec institutions, insisted his government had settled issues of racism at a Joliette, Que., hospital that a coroner’s report determined had contributed to the 2020 death of an Indigenous woman. But on Tuesday, the CAQ Leader apologized to the woman’s husband for his comments, saying he had expressed himself “maybe clumsily.”

The incident confirmed a pattern that has emerged during the campaign. Earlier this month, the CAQ Leader appeared to link violent crime to immigration, only to walk back his comments later on Twitter after his outburst caused an uproar. “I am sorry if my remarks led to confusion,” he tweeted. “My wish is to unite.”

Not everyone bought his act of contrition. Former Quebec City mayor Régis Labeaume wrote in La Presse that Mr. Legault “knew exactly what he was doing.” His “verbal ballet,” Mr. Labeaume opined, aimed to rally “wound-up nationalists” behind the CAQ and get those on both sides of the immigration debate to dig in their heels.

It would hardly be the first time Mr. Legault has resorted to dog-whistle tactics. But in this campaign, even more than in 2018, he has sought to position the CAQ as a rampart against the progressive policies advocated by Québec Solidaire, a far-left party founded in 2006 that has emerged as the second-most popular party among francophone voters. QS favours liberal immigration policies and has championed the fight against systemic racism.

According to Tuesday’s Leger poll, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is the preferred choice of 28 per cent of Quebeckers for leader of the Official Opposition, far surpassing the 16 per cent of voters who said they intend to vote for his party.

While QS is only a distant threat to the CAQ in this election – it remains about 20 percentage points behind in the polls – many political observers see the party emerging as a contender for government if the PQ and Liberals continue to fade into obscurity.

That day might come sooner rather than later if the Conservative Party of Quebec, led by Éric Duhaime, continues to peel away support from the CAQ. The Conservatives have become the CAQ’s main rival in the Quebec City and Beauce regions, both of which have been CAQ fortresses in recent elections. The CAQ no longer holds a monopoly on right-wing voters.

The Conservative threat has forced Mr. Legault to spend a significant amount of time campaigning in the provincial capital and promoting his party’s signature promise – a tunnel under the St. Lawrence River to connect Quebec City to suburban Lévis, Que. – that is largely viewed elsewhere in Quebec as an extravagant vote-buying tactic.

The CAQ Leader will have another go at it on Thursday, when Radio-Canada plays host to the second and final debate of the campaign. But if a fragmented opposition still all but ensures the CAQ will be re-elected, Mr. Legault’s image seems to have been irreparably diminished by this campaign.