François Legault won near-unanimous approval from the party faithful at Coalition Avenir Québec’s weekend convention on Sunday. Fully 98.6 per cent of the nearly 1,000 CAQ members who attended the event reaffirmed their confidence in the CAQ co-founder, who clinched a decisive second mandate as Quebec Premier in a general election just seven months ago.
Even so, the Soviet-style endorsement by CAQ members was a hollow victory for Mr. Legault. It demonstrated the utter lack of intellectual depth or curiosity within the 12-year-old party that once aimed to reform Quebec. The most hotly debated item on the convention agenda involved a resolution to allow Montreal drivers to turn right at a red light. It was voted down.
There was not a peep of criticism from CAQ members about Mr. Legault’s move last month to renege on the party’s signature election promise in the Quebec City area: to build an underwater tunnel for automobile traffic between the capital and its south-shore suburbs. Even if cancelling the Third Link project was the right decision, the move cast doubt on the sincerity of Mr. Legault’s promise, which he had defended tooth-and-nail during the election campaign.
A May 2 Léger poll conducted for TVA showed CAQ support in the greater Quebec City area plummeting by 14 percentage points (to 26 per cent) since February. Most surprisingly, the sovereigntist Parti Québécois surged into first place in the region, with 28 per cent support, an eight-point gain. The PQ is now in second place provincewide, with 22 per cent compared to the CAQ’s 36 per cent. The online poll of 1,200 respondents did not carry a margin of error, but the trend is unmistakable.
A year ago, Léger had the PQ at 8 per cent and the party’s survival was in doubt. Mr. Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister who had created the CAQ to break a four-decade-long PQ-Liberal duopoly in Quebec politics, appeared to have succeeded in making the PQ irrelevant by usurping its nationalist discourse while vowing to never hold another divisive referendum on sovereignty. He promised Quebeckers de facto independence – or l’autonomisme – without having to give up federal transfer payments.
Thanks to a strong campaign performance by neophyte PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon – and a stroke of luck when the Québec Solidaire candidate in his riding was filmed removing PQ campaign leaflets from mailboxes – the PQ won 15 per cent of the popular vote in the October election. But with only three seats in the National Assembly, no one figured it would be much of a threat for the CAQ.
Mr. Plamondon, likeable and understated, has proved otherwise. He deftly seized on Quebeckers’ ambivalence toward the monarchy by refusing to pledge allegiance to King Charles III when taking his seat in the legislature. It forced the CAQ to change the law to make the oath optional. Mr. Plamondon was hailed for standing up for his principles.
Now, Mr. Legault’s attempts to use identity politics to fire up voters also appear to be playing into the PQ’s hands.
A year ago, the Premier warned that Quebec would become like Louisiana – a former French possession wherein only a handful of residents still speak the language of Molière – unless the province won full control over immigration policy. He said he needed a “strong mandate” from voters to force Ottawa to cede authority to Quebec for refugee and family-reunification policies, in addition to selecting its own economic immigrants, which the province has done for three decades. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to budge on the issue, and, since his re-election, Mr. Legault has all but stopped asking.
Instead, delegates to the CAQ convention approved a resolution calling on Ottawa to give Quebec control of the temporary foreign worker program – a far cry from the sweeping immigration powers Mr. Legault promised to fight for during the campaign.
Mr. Plamondon, whose party promised last year to cut the number of permanent residents Quebec accepts each year to 35,000 from the CAQ’s target of 50,000, argues Mr. Legault’s failure to obtain more power over immigration from Ottawa is more proof that independence is needed to assure Quebec’s cultural survival. You cannot blame more and more Quebeckers for agreeing with him.
A recent series of critical reports by Quebecor Media on Ottawa’s plan to accept 500,000 permanent residents in 2025 had the effect of hoisting Mr. Legault on his own petard. After previously whipping Quebeckers into a frenzy over immigration, he could hardly accuse Le Journal de Montréal of fear-mongering. After depicting federal immigration policy as an existential threat to Quebec, he could not suddenly claim the opposite.
Mr. Legault weaponized the immigration file to win power in 2018, and again in 2022. It would be more than ironic if the issue ends up becoming the CAQ’s undoing as the PQ lives to fight another day, if not another referendum.