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margaret wente

If you've been enjoying a news-free vacation lately (highly recommended for your mental health), you may be in for a nasty shock. There's an election in Quebec next week, and the separatists might win.

I know. It seems too awful to be true. Haven't we driven a stake through that thing? Only months ago the Parti Québécois seemed like a pathetic rump of aging academics, left-wing journalists and other francophones nostalgic for their lost youth. Their leader, Pauline Marois, is a relic from the '90s – one of those women in politics who, you suspect, got the job because it was no longer worth having. Yet now the vampire is arising from its grave, and next week Ms. Marois could be premier.

Her campaign platform isn't pretty. Although she's basically a socialist, some of her rhetoric smacks of Europe's anti-immigrant right wing. "Let us not yield to the intimidation of those who want to impose values that are not ours," she declared in a campaign ad. She wants immigrants to pass a French test before they run for public office. (Originally this restriction was going to apply to people born in Quebec too, until aboriginal groups exploded in protest.) She wants to ban the display of all religious dress or symbols (except the crucifix) by anyone who works for the government. She wants to take away the right of francophone and allophone students to attend English-language junior colleges.

Critics call these policies xenophobic. Some say they amount to bloodless ethnic cleansing. At a minimum they are embarrassingly parochial, like that Hérouxville resolution a few years ago to prohibit stoning. They conjure up a tiny, fragile population in danger of being overrun by barbarian hordes that want to put all women back in burkas.

Why is Ms. Marois doing so well? Have Quebeckers lost their minds? If so, it's hard to blame them. They've endured nine years of Jean Charest, a leader who's so clapped-out, so exhausted, and so devoid of ideas that he's still blaming the PQ for Quebec's economic problems. The Liberal Party should have hooked him off the stage by now, but they're exhausted too. They are engulfed in suspicions of corruption. Their only remaining supporters are the English-speaking senior citizens of Montreal, who are, unhappily, dying out. It looks as though Quebec's Liberals, like their federal counterparts, are crawling toward the scrapheap of history.

Oh well. For every loser there's usually a winner. This time the winner is François Legault, a recycled Péquiste who has defected from the dark side and shelved sovereigntist ambitions. In a beauty contest full of homely people, he appears to be the least homely of the lot. Which isn't saying much. His party, the brand-new Coalition Avenir Québec, has never run a thing. Although he claims to be a capitalist, he's really a populist, with a bunch of silly promises he can't (or shouldn't) keep. If elected, he vows to turf out the (extremely able) head of the Caisse de dépôt, the outfit that manages Quebec's pension money, and replace him with somebody who's more amenable to political interference. In which case, God help the pensioners.

Although the latest polls give the edge to Ms. Marois, no one has a clue what will happen next week. Her identity politics are so obnoxious that even some PQers are turning in their membership cards. And plenty of die-hard federalists would rather drink cyanide than vote Liberal again. Also, Quebec's voters are notoriously fickle, and can change their collective mind overnight. (See: Layton, Jack.) I almost feel sorry for them. I thought our choices were bad here in Ontario, but theirs are worse.

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