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Re-election was always going to be an uphill battle for Philippe Couillard.

The Quebec Liberal Premier may have achieved what many analysts believed impossible – a balanced budget and a shrinking debt – but he was outplayed from the outset by opposition politicians who cast his accomplishment as a cold-blooded, cost-cutting exercise that hurt families.

So it was a bit of a mystery why Philippe Couillard began the campaign for the Oct. 1 provincial election by attempting to define the vote as a referendum on his management of public finances. “Either we harvest the fruit of our past efforts, or we compromise years of work,” he insisted at his Aug. 23 campaign launch. “It’s a choice between stability and instability.”

With the campaign now half over, that message clearly hasn’t worked. A Leger Marketing poll conducted for Le Devoir and the Montreal Gazette, released on Tuesday, put Liberal support among francophone voters at a catastrophic 17 per cent. Were it not for the party’s 70-per-cent support among non-francophones, the Liberals might be looking at near-annihilation on Oct. 1.

Thursday’s French-language leaders’ debate is shaping up as Mr. Couillard’s last chance to change the course of a campaign that has been unfolding much as the Coalition Avenir Québec might have hoped it would, with the CAQ holding on to a massive lead among francophones.

The six-year-old CAQ, headed by former Parti Québécois cabinet minister François Legault, has maintained enough of an overall lead in the polls to campaign confidently, but not overconfidently, as a government-in-waiting. With the PQ waging a bizarre campaign under its unloved leader Jean-François Lisée, who never so much as mentions sovereignty, Mr. Legault cajoles his “péquiste friends” and “soft Liberals” to hop on his change caravan.

Indeed, Mr. Couillard seemingly can’t catch a break. After the Premier vowed to loosen the purse strings during a second mandate, Mr. Legault accused him of being a big spender and likened his promises to those of the far-left Québec Solidaire. But his ability to turn the tables on his opponents is one of Mr. Legault’s strengths, even if it means he contradicts himself at times.

Tangling Mr. Legault in his own contradictions will be one of Mr. Couillard’s main tasks during Thursday’s debate. The CAQ leader has put forward an immigration plan that frankly defies credibility. He wants to cut the number of immigrants Quebec accepts annually to 40,000 from the 53,000 newcomers it welcomed in 2017. But the reduction would be entirely among so-called economic immigrants that the province chooses on its own, since the federal government is alone responsible for handling immigration cases related to refugees and family reunification.

Quebec’s economy already faces a pronounced labour shortage as its working-age population declines. That shortage would only be exacerbated by cutting the number of economic immigrants from the 31,000 the province took in last year. Mr. Legault insists this is simply a question of reducing the numbers to better match job vacancies and to free up more resources to ensure newcomers learn French within three years of their arrival.

According to the CAQ plan, immigrants who fail to learn the province’s official language within that period would be expelled, even though only the federal government has the authority to kick people out of the country. Mr. Legault suggests Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be bound to respect the will of Quebeckers who voted for a CAQ government. Right.

This is all a ruse, of course, to exploit francophone Quebeckers’ insecurity about the survival of their language and culture. It’s hardly a novel tactic, but the genius of the CAQ is to cast its policies in non-threatening terms that appeal to Quebeckers’ nostalgia for simpler times.

Unlike the former PQ government’s charter of Quebec values, which evoked a clash of civilizations between secular Québécois and largely Muslim newcomers, the CAQ couches its immigration policy in common-sense language. It’s not based on high-minded secular principles but rather aimed at ensuring, as Mr. Legault puts it, that “our grandchildren still speak French.”

Since the Conquest in 1759, francophone Quebeckers have always defined their collective mission in survivalist terms. While they’re tired of the PQ’s confrontational politics – after four decades, who wouldn’t be? – they remain as committed as ever to their mission.

Mr. Couillard’s mistake has been to underestimate the emotional pull of Mr. Legault’s pitch. By casting immigration as a purely economic imperative, the Premier has seemed cold and out of touch. It may be too late for him to change that impression. But he needs to at least give it a whirl in Thursday’s debate.

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