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lysiane gagnon

What's the link between an Islamist terrorist and a daycare worker who wears the hijab? Any sensible person would find the question utterly silly, but not Quebec's radical secularists – and they're at it again.

Here they are, shamelessly exploiting the terrorist attacks in Paris that left 12 dead three weeks ago, calling for a ban on religious symbols – as if such a ban was some sort of guarantee against potential terrorist attacks. (If it were, France wouldn't have been targeted so often by home-grown terrorists, since it has the most stringent secular policies by far in the Western world.)

The blood of the Paris victims wasn't even dry when Quebec's radical secularists, led by the Parti Québécois opposition, began campaigning for some sort of revival of the secular charter that died when former premier Pauline Marois's government was defeated after months of divisive and emotional debate.

The PQ, knowing full well that Premier Philippe Couillard is uncomfortable with identity politics, is pushing the government to pass legislation his Liberals promised, unwisely, before the election. The legislation, a much milder version of the PQ charter, would forbid public-sector employees to cover their faces (a non-existent problem) and set rules for "reasonable accommodations" between institutions and religious customers or employees (a problem that's already been solved by local administrations).

The Liberals also intend to set up an array of measures against fundamentalism. One presumes the law would also cover Christian fundamentalism, but it is no secret that the purpose of the law is to combat Muslim fundamentalism.

When the PQ first raised the issue, Mr. Couillard's initial reaction was fine and decent: He said that the timing wasn't good so soon after terrorist attacks in Canada and France, because it would increase the confusion about the links between Islam and terrorism.

But the temperature rose last week, as a survey made for the Cogeco radio network showed that 59 per cent of Quebeckers, including 64 per cent of francophones, wanted a new "charter of secularism." Mr. Couillard dithered, as he often does under pressure. After initially saying the law would not be introduced before next fall, and maybe not even before 2017, he finally announced that it might be introduced as early as this spring.

Debates about identity politics are always corrosive. A new low has been reached in Quebec's National Assembly, where interim PQ leader Stéphane Bédard accused Mr. Couillard of being soft on fundamentalism because he worked as a medical adviser to the Saudi government from 1992 to 1996. The Premier seems "very much imbued with Saudi values," Mr. Bedard said, and he pleaded with him not to "import" them to Quebec, as if Mr. Couillard was about to introduce stonings and floggings and crack down on women driving.

Two contenders for the PQ leadership, former provincial cabinet ministers Alexandre Cloutier and Bernard Drainville, chimed in, insinuating that Mr. Couillard's stay in Saudi Arabia "maybe" made him "tolerant" toward policies that discriminate against women.

The party later apologized for these remarks, but then another low was reached when François Legault, head of the opposition Coalition Avenir Québec, who wants to ban religious symbols for teachers, declared that he couldn't understand Mr. Couillard's insensitivity toward identity politics. "Maybe," he said, "a psychiatrist should sit down with him and look into this."

A can of worms, that poisoned Quebec for a full year under Ms. Marois, has been reopened.

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