Wedge politics is a dangerous tactic, especially when it involves an attack on minorities. Unfortunately, it also often works.
Since the Parti Québécois government announced, through calculated leaks to sympathetic tabloids, its intention to prohibit public-service workers from wearing religious symbols and articles of faith, it has gained five points in the polls. (Part of the gain may be due to Premier Pauline Marois's efficient and compassionate response to the Lac-Mégantic disaster.)
The full text of the so-called Charter of Quebec Values won't be known until Sept. 9, but the explosive debate is already in full force, with the population and opinion-makers divided into two camps.
The issue doesn't pit sovereigntists against federalists, although the project plays on the old-style, defensive nationalism that has always brought powerful ammunition to the sovereigntist movement. Many left-leaning or libertarian sovereigntists are adamantly opposed to the project, including the leftist Québec Solidaire party, which has two MNAs.
It's also a debate between Montreal, the cosmopolitan metropolis, and the outlying areas that are the quasi-exclusive domain of old-stock francophones – the irony being that those with the least exposure to the kippa and the niqab are the charter's most enthusiastic proponents, while Montreal City Council, which includes some prominent sovereigntists, unanimously passed a motion asking the government to "back off" its rigid policy.
Meanwhile, the populist media are joyfully stoking the flames, manufacturing a "crisis" with little basis in Montrealers' daily life. And, social media overflows with frightful anecdotes about the worst abuses of radical Islam, suggesting that this is Quebec's future if it continues to tolerate Muslim religious customs.
In Quebec, as in France, secularism often serves as a screen for plain xenophobia. Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right Front National, constantly invokes the tradition of laïcité to justify anti-immigrant policies. In Quebec, the discovery of the concept dates from around 2007, coinciding with the rise of Muslim immigration and a few incidents involving unreasonable demands by fundamentalists.
Brandishing the noble principle of equality between men and women is another way to cover Islamophobia with a politically correct varnish. It's actually the stated goal of the PQ project. So what if banning the veil (seen as a symbol of female submission) from the public sector means that practising Muslim women will be barred from the best jobs – let alone nurses, educators and other professionals whose work usually takes place in public institutions.
For good measure, the future charter will also ban religious signs like kippas, turbans and oversized crosses – but in the National Assembly, the deputies will go on making laws under the guiding light of the crucifix that was installed there in 1936 by Maurice Duplessis, the arch-Catholic premier especially remembered for unabashed anti-Semitism and an infamous crackdown on Jehovah's Witnesses.
This crucifix has been promoted by the government to the rank of a "patrimonial" object, like a historic cathedral or the cross on Mount Royal. Even the previous Liberal government didn't dare remove the crucifix for fear of offending the French-Canadian majority who clings to this identity symbol even while the churches go deserted. One can only conclude that secularism is something that's good for the "others," not for "nous autres."