There is probably no greater compliment you could pay Jean-François Lisée than to call him Machiavellian. The Parti Québécois cabinet minister and strategist has a healthy opinion of his own cunning and, with it, has managed to penetrate the inner circle of successive PQ leaders.
No matter that most of his ideas are ignored or ridiculed, PQ chiefs know that keeping this diehard sovereigntist on the inside is far safer than letting him run loose on the outside, where his critiques and constant provocation can cause them more trouble.
So, while there is some truth to Mr. Lisée's latest musing about the de facto "decanadianization" of Quebec – having straddled the universes of French Quebec and English Canada all my adult life, I've also witnessed a progressive decoupling – his outburst should properly be seen as a baiting tactic.
Stirring resentment is Mr. Lisée's stock in trade. He would find justification for Quebec separation in the smallest slight, real or perceived. (Last week, he even cited the Harper government's plan to impose tolls on a new bridge across the St. Lawrence. Really.)
This alone makes him an odd choice as Minister of International Relations and minister responsible for Montreal, both functions that involve building bridges (figuratively speaking) instead of systematically blowing them up. Yet, PQ Premier Pauline Marois has been especially indulgent of Mr. Lisée. While in opposition, she embraced his proposal to establish a Quebec citizenship and make "adequate" knowledge of French a precondition to running for public office. She even drafted legislation to this effect, despite grumbling by moderate Péquistes about Mr. Lisée's influence.
Back then, Mr. Lisée had just published his umpteenth book, an essay called Nous. The "us" of the title referred to Quebec's francophone majority, which was suffering a chronic "malaise" after years of subordinating its affirmation to that of minorities who had settled in the province.
"The fact that the majority 'us' lacks self-esteem leads it to blame the 'other.' But it's not the other who is responsible. It is the majority that is responsible for establishing the norms."
After the PQ returned to power in 2012, Mr. Lisée moved from backroom strategist to perhaps the most important player in Ms. Marois's minority government, after the Premier herself. The proposed Charter of Quebec Values, which would prohibit provincial employees from wearing religious garb, bears his imprint in substance and style.
And thanks to the values charter, Ms. Marois's government is off death row – at least for now. Dividing Quebeckers between those who support it and those who don't has been politically profitable. No matter that the "us" makes up an increasingly shrinking share of a modern and multicultural Quebec, the charter is the PQ's best hope for re-election. But it's a myopic strategy.
As a diligent student of Quebec history and culture, I understand the visceral attraction of secularism among a population that still bears the deep scars of its priest-ridden past. It is no coincidence that the most strident supporters of the charter are Québécoises over 50. Their experience has made them deeply skeptical of all organized religion, but especially of Islam, which has replaced Catholicism in popular imagination as the faith most inimical to women's rights.
By exploiting such fears, however, Mr. Lisée and Ms. Marois have exacerbated the societal cleavages that have made Quebec increasingly ungovernable. Urban versus rural. Francophone versus non-francophone. Immigrant versus non-immigrant. And young versus old.
Indeed, it is the generational divide that exposes the values charter as a relic of old thinking. Young Quebeckers aren't running from the same bogeyman their parents and grandparents have spent a lifetime fleeing. Free of such complexes, they largely see the charter as ridiculous overkill.
In a letter to The New York Times, Mr. Lisée and fellow cabinet minister Bernard Drainville had the gumption to describe the charter as Quebec's "[Thomas] Jefferson moment," in reference to the statesman behind the American doctrine of separation of church and state. What's astonishing is that the former Washington correspondent for La Presse seemed oblivious to the origin of that doctrine in Jefferson's desire to protect religious minorities.
The first American colonists were Puritans fleeing persecution. It's why freedom of religion is entrenched in the U.S. First Amendment, not the 27th. If the Quebec charter's constitutionality is a matter of debate north of the border, it would be slam-dunk unconstitutional south of it.
By exposing his ignorance in the Times, Mr. Lisée proved he is no Machiavelli.