September was a bad month for François Legault.
Since winning power in 2018, the Coalition Avenir Québec Premier had come to reign over his province with unrivalled authority. What little opposition he faced in the National Assembly made him look good by comparison. Most Quebeckers liked his father-knows-best style.
It was only natural, perhaps, that his political success might go to his head. But Mr. Legault appears to have fallen into the trap of believing he owes his remarkable popularity to only himself, rather than to a series of factors for which he was only partly, or not at all, responsible.
How else can you explain his persistent efforts during the federal election campaign to corral Quebeckers into voting for Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives, as if they needed his guidance to determine their own interests?
How else do you explain the Premier’s callous response to calls to make the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation a statutory holiday in Quebec or, on the first anniversary of the death of Joyce Echaquan, to recognize the existence of systemic racism in Quebec?
Once again, Mr. Legault demonstrated a dangerous tendency to get annoyed at the slightest criticism and dismiss anyone who disagrees with him as a troublemaker or, even worse, an enemy of the Quebec people.
There are other signs that the final year of Mr. Legault’s four-year mandate might not go as swimmingly – the COVID-19 pandemic excepted, of course – as the first three. A Sept. 15 exchange in the legislature with Québec Solidaire’s Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois produced sparks and exposed the Premier’s vulnerabilities.
The 31-year-old Mr. Nadeau-Dubois rose to prominence during the 2012 Maple Spring, when he emerged as the most articulate and charismatic of the trio of youth activists who led nightly street demonstrations against tuition fee increases proposed by then-premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government.
After completing a history degree at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois won a seat in the National Assembly in a 2017 by-election. Though he was soon designated a “co-spokesperson” for Québec Solidaire, a structurally unconventional far-left party created in 2006, he took a back seat to Manon Massé. It was Ms. Massé who fronted QS’s 2018 election campaign and was designated by the party’s executive to serve as premier had QS won.
Ms. Massé stepped down as QS House Leader in June, allowing Mr. Nadeau-Dubois to assume the role he was always destined to inherit. And when the National Assembly reconvened last month, he did not waste any time signalling that Mr. Legault’s honeymoon was finally over.
“I’m sorry to burst his bubble, but someone’s got to do it,” Mr. Nadeau-Dubois explained in Question Period after mocking Mr. Legault as the “self-proclaimed father of the Quebec nation” and comparing him to authoritarian 1950s premier Maurice Duplessis. “He can wave around all the poll results he wants, there are millions of us in Quebec who do not see ourselves in his government. There are millions of us who are tired of him presenting himself as our saviour and redeemer. We are not his flock. We are tired of his sermons.”
Mr. Legault shot back by calling Mr. Nadeau-Dubois a “multiculturalist” and defending Mr. Duplessis’s honour. “He had lots of faults, but he defended the Quebec nation,” the Premier insisted. “He wasn’t a ‘woke’ like the leader of Québec Solidaire.”
In that instant, it seemed as if the 2022 election campaign had begun. And that it would be nothing like the 2018 campaign that saw Mr. Legault’s then-seven-year-old CAQ unseat the long-governing Liberals and leave the Parti Québécois fighting for its very survival.
An Oct. 2 Leger poll showed the CAQ with a 27-percentage-point lead over the second-place Liberals, who continue to dominate among non-francophone Quebeckers, but who remain in fourth place among French-speaking voters. Among francophones, the CAQ has a lead of 40 points or more over all three opposition parties.
Still, Mr. Legault is not invulnerable. And his paternalistic style is bound to eventually wear on voters. When it does, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is likely to be the main beneficiary.
Québec Solidaire is an odd political animal. It remains far too radical – and yes, woke – for most Quebeckers to consider voting for it. It is also too small to contain Mr. Nadeau-Dubois’s immense political ambitions. A merger with the PQ, with which QS shares the goal of a sovereign Quebec, appears the most likely scenario, resulting in a new centre-left party to counter the centre-right CAQ.
Luckily for Mr. Legault, that is unlikely before the next election. But the Premier, who this week said he was already considering running for a third term before he has even won a second one, should not take anything for granted.
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