The first thing Canadians outside Quebec will notice on Sept. 4, if Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois is elected premier, is the poor quality of her English.
Ms. Marois, who will quite probably head the province's next government, could be called the first leader in the PQ's 40-year history who was less than fluently bilingual – contrary to her predecessors, who all spoke English very well.
This is a flaw she shares with the Coalition Avenir Québec's François Legault, who the polls show might become opposition leader. Mr. Legault's poor English is even odder, since he spent 20 years in business before entering politics. In any case, the end result is that it will be harder for the leaders speaking for Quebec to engage in easy and direct talks with counterparts in the rest of Canada, let alone with the governors of neighbouring American states.
The cherry on the sundae is that Françoise David, co-leader of the fourth important party, the extreme-left Québec Solidaire, is also weak in English, even though she comes from an upper-class Montreal family (both her father and grandfather were prominent Liberal senators). This leaves Liberal Premier Jean Charest as the only truly bilingual provincial leader in Quebec, but he is on his way out, headed for a resounding defeat.
This linguistic ignorance at the highest level is totally unprecedented in Quebec politics and, frankly, unexplainable. Unfortunately, it will reinforce the perception of Quebec as a parochial, closed society – an image that betrays the reality.
Ms. Marois represents other firsts.
She is the first PQ leader to anchor the party resolutely to the left, a sharp break with the tradition of building a large coalition of right- and centre-leaning sovereigntists. Last week, she bluntly invited "conservative sovereigntists" to join the right-wing CAQ – a huge gaffe that sent shock waves through her troops, although she later offered an unconvincing justification.
She also is the first PQ leader to play the card of identity politics with such unabashed abandon. Her platform includes an extreme radicalization of Quebec's language laws, and, under the noble guise of secularism, several attacks on immigrants – to the point of making the PQ appear xenophobic.
In her long career as a senior minister in previous governments, Ms. Marois never looked like a radical. But in recent months, while the PQ went through several episodes of vicious infighting, she gave in to the hard-liners to save her leadership, to the point of accepting several ideas she had fought against previously. The fact that she is running on a platform partly imposed on her might explain the erratic character of her campaign, which has been marked by flip-flops on key issues.
One wonders whether a leader with more moral authority wouldn't have been able to resist the hard-liners. Ms. Marois was a fine and efficient cabinet minister, but aspects of her leadership abilities have always been questioned.
Now the PQ's more moderate members are flocking to the CAQ, which is seen as the only party of change and is, indeed, the only one with momentum. A new CROP poll shows that while the Liberals are bleeding and the PQ is still stuck in minority territory, the CAQ has gained seven points since the beginning of the campaign – quite an exploit for a new party headed by an uncharismatic accountant with a half-baked platform. This says a lot about the two "old" parties.