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Three years ago, a group of left-leaning Québécois academics and opinion-makers published a manifesto (yes, another one) calling for "a secular and pluralist Quebec." It advocated the state's strict religious neutrality as the guarantor of an "authentically pluralistic" society.

"The neutrality of the state is expressed in the image of neutrality given by its representatives," the manifesto said. "The latter must therefore avoid displaying their religious, philosophical or political affiliations."

The manifesto's original signatories included a who's who of progressive intellectuals and fixtures of Quebec's media debating society. Among them were Marie-France Bazzo, who has just returned to Radio-Canada as host of Montreal's flagship morning radio show, and Jean-François Lisée, the long-time Parti Québécois strategist and now a provincial cabinet minister.

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This manifesto was a reaction to another document, penned by liberal intellectuals steeped in the study of diversity, that adopted a more accommodating stand toward immigrants who seek to express their religious identification in public. But it was the secularists' manifesto that caught the public imagination and seemed to draw the most adherents.

Three years before all of this happened, municipal councillors in the isolated hamlet of Hérouxville (pop. 1,340) adopted a "code of conduct" that warned newcomers against bringing their visibly non-Catholic religious traditions with them, including wearing the kirpan or the niqab.

The Hérouxville code was a backlash against the "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities in Montreal and a manifestation of rural Quebec's conservatism, which, although secular in appearance, remains deeply rooted in Catholic tradition. The then-fledgling Action Démocratique du Québec rode this backlash to Official Opposition status in the 2007 election.

Now, with its proposed Charter of Quebec Values, the minority PQ government of Premier Pauline Marois is seeking to unite these two currents in Quebec politics – the progressive secularists of Montreal and the conservative traditionalists of the hinterland – in a single cause.

Judging by the way her political opponents have been squirming, Ms. Marois seems to be succeeding. A debate focused on identity politics, and one nourished by ample Quebec-bashing in the rest of Canada, could be Ms. Marois's last best hope for winning the next election.

The proposed charter, a draft of which is expected to be unveiled Sept. 9, would reportedly ban all public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols and lay out stricter guidelines for the accommodation of religious minorities by public institutions and employers.

The "absence of clear rules" has led to tensions within Quebec society, Ms. Marois said last week. She added that the PQ charter is the natural continuation of a process of secularization that began decades ago, and to which Ms. Marois herself contributed by deconfessionalizing Quebec's public-school system as education minister in the late 1990s.

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As invective and outrage spews from the sidelines, Ms. Marois and her ministers have gone calmly about the task of explaining the rationale behind their charter. They have sought to look like the reasonable ones, letting the over-the-top language of their critics speak for itself.

Philosopher Charles Taylor's description of the charter as a document worthy of Vladimir Putin's Russia and Justin Trudeau's segue from celebrating Martin Luther King into denouncing the PQ charter might play well in English Quebec or a handful of immigrant ridings in Montreal. But nothing bothers most Québécois more than being called extremists or xenophobes.

"If we want to act on questions of identity, values or language, we must expect to be called every name in the book," Mr. Lisée said recently. "If [René] Lévesque and [his language minister Camille] Laurin had said, 'That bothers me,' there never would have been a Bill 101."

Identity politics is always bad news for the provincial Liberals, and so the party's new leader Philippe Couillard has the most to lose as the charter dominates political debate. The party depends on unwavering support among anglophones and immigrant communities to secure a base of seats in the National Assembly. Mr. Couillard has strongly opposed the charter's outright ban on religious symbols, but must walk a fine line on the issue in francophone Quebec. He can only hope the debate shifts back to the economy – and fast.

The Coalition Avenir Québec, the successor to the ADQ, risks being squeezed out of the charter debate. Leader François Legault has attempted to find a middle ground between the PQ ("too radical") and Liberals ("who dragged their feet in office"). But Mr. Legault, too, needs the debate to shift to taxes and public debt if his struggling party is to maintain much of a raison d'être.

Ms. Marois, no doubt counselled by Mr. Lisée, knows exactly what she's doing.

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