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Quebec Premier François Legault responds to a question during a news conference in Montreal, on Jan. 11.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The year has not started off well for François Legault.

The Quebec Premier seems to have lost the magic touch that allowed him to sail through the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic with an approval rating that was the envy of his peers across Canada. His once uncanny political judgment has failed him in recent weeks – first, when he reintroduced a hated nighttime curfew, and then with his vindictive vow to tax unvaccinated Quebeckers.

Both measures flopped spectacularly because they were transparent attempts to divert public attention away from uncomfortable truths. The reintroduction of a curfew starting on New Year’s Eve reminded Quebeckers of the first difficult months of 2021, when they lived under a government order to remain in their homes after 8 p.m. While many people questioned the effectiveness of the curfew in reducing COVID-19 infections then, most seemed willing to defer to Mr. Legault’s judgment. But the Premier made a mistake in believing Quebeckers would accept going through that again without solid proof it was worth the sacrifice.

Not when no other province or U.S. state had ever resorted to such an extreme limit on its citizens’ freedom of movement. Not when even a country as overregulated as France, which had also imposed a curfew in early 2021, avoided reintroducing the measure as Omicron infections shattered daily case-count records.

By the time the fifth wave hit, Quebeckers had woken up to the fact that the reason they faced some of the strictest COVID-19 restrictions anywhere was that their health care system, the one Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government was elected in 2018 to fix, had gone from bad to worse.

This time, Mr. Legault was forced to lift the curfew after only two weeks.

Should the unvaccinated pay a special tax?

Macron and Legault play politics with the unvaccinated

The curfew faux pas did not inflict as much political damage on the Premier, however, as his harebrained plan to tax unvaccinated Quebeckers, which he withdrew on Tuesday. Mr. Legault announced the measure in early January without offering the slightest detail about how it would work. “It’s not true that 10 per cent of the population is going to harm 90 per cent of the population by choking up our hospitals,” he said then, once again attempting to change the subject.

Polls showed that taxing the unvaccinated was broadly popular. But those against the measure opposed it with a passion. Public-health experts also spoke out against the proposal, saying the tax would fall disproportionately on marginalized Quebeckers whose hesitancy toward vaccines was best addressed with information rather than penalties. Public-policy experts raised ethical questions about the precedent created by singling out the unvaccinated. Would a “fat tax” be next?

Then, a Jan. 19 Leger internet poll showed a sudden surge in support for the fledgling Conservative Party of Quebec, which had been a non-factor in provincial politics until a populist Quebec City talk-radio host, Éric Duhaime, became its leader last year. The party, which has opposed vaccine mandates and most COVID-19 restrictions, doubled its support to 11 per cent from a December Leger poll and from barely 1.5 per cent in the 2018 election. Fully 22 per cent of Quebeckers between the ages of 35 and 54, the core of the CAQ base, said they would vote for Mr. Duhaime’s party, according to the internet poll, which did not provide a margin of error.

The erosion in CAQ support – down to 42 per cent from above 50 per cent throughout most of 2020 – clearly provoked Mr. Legault’s decision to scrap the vax tax. Backbench CAQ MNAs, who had been getting an earful from constituents, expressed their anxiety at a caucus meeting last week. Given the volatility of Quebec voters, most CAQ MNAs know how fast the political winds can change in the province.

With four opposition parties splitting the non-CAQ vote, Mr. Legault’s government remains overwhelmingly favoured to win re-election in October. But his honeymoon with Quebec voters is finally over. He is increasingly seen as a typical politician – and a highly manipulative one at that – rather than the transcendent figure of 2018 who would move Quebec beyond the sterile federalist-sovereigntist politics of the past.

The centrist Quebec Liberal Party still dominates the non-francophone vote. The leftist Québec Solidaire has a lock on francophone progressives. The Parti Québécois is holding on to what is left of the diehard sovereigntist supporters. The Conservative Party of Quebec has broken into the public consciousness and has eaten away at CAQ support on the right. Sooner or later, one of them is bound to become a real threat to Mr. Legault.

After a terrible January, Mr. Legault will need to watch his step from now on.

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