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Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The tumult over Quebec's Charter of Values has provoked criticism from unexpected quarters, most recently from former premier Jacques Parizeau, sometimes known as "Monsieur."

But the critique from a man widely considered the spiritual beacon of the sovereignty movement – and who in 1995 brought the "Yes" forces closer than they have ever been to winning a referendum – carries unusual heft.

Mr. Parizeau's main difficulty with the proposed charter is that it goes to a place the Quebec government has never trod: legislating against religious freedom.

In an open letter published on Thursday and in a raft of broadcast appearances, Mr. Parizeau called the proposed charter "full of holes" and "legislation that bans religious expression for a certain group of women." He is right, and should be commended for his frankness.

Some will raise an eyebrow at a man who blamed "money and ethnic votes" for the 1995 referendum defeat, who is now rallying to the cause of Muslim women and other minorities.

In an interview with the Montreal radio personality Paul Arcand, Mr. Parizeau brushed aside his notorious comments, saying he merely meant the concerted opposition to sovereigntism by the leaders of Quebec's Italian, Greek and Jewish communities.

On its face, however, there's nothing contradictory about his opposition to the values charter. The Parti Québécois and Premier Pauline Marois are conflating legitimate arguments (formalizing the separation of church and state, asserting gender equality) with cynical populism (banning headgear for public servants while conserving the National Assembly crucifix).

Mr. Parizeau correctly observes that state neutrality in Quebec has already been achieved, without social tension.

He chose to make his comments in a column carried widely in mass-market tabloids – and amplified them on radio and television – which suggests a thought-out strategy to destabilize the minority government.

Now in his 80s, Mr. Parizeau no longer has the public presence or influence on Quebec's polity he once had. He has frequently sniped at his successors from the sidelines.

In this case, his intervention invites different interpretations.

He could be dismissed as someone who bolted for a rival sovereigntist party, Option nationale, after his wife, Lisette Lapointe, quit the PQ caucus in 2011. But he may also be providing political cover for a climb-down; the government has known for several days that he was about to weigh in.

Mr. Parizeau said he would be willing to support a ban on religious headgear for judges, police officers and prison guards, as recommended by the Bouchard-Taylor commission in 2009. That would be a much easier sell for the minority PQ.

With speculation mounting that Ms. Marois is considering going to the polls in early December, the fallout from Mr. Parizeau's latest intervention over the next few days will be revealing.