Never mind the economic woes that affect Quebec. The secular charter is the miracle engine that is propelling the Parti Québécois into majority territory.
The project is increasingly popular among the francophone voters who control most of the province's ridings. It's actually much more popular than the PQ itself.
According to a recent Léger Marketing poll, for the first time since the election, Pauline Marois's minority government would be poised to win a majority if an election were held now. Among francophones, the PQ is ahead of Philippe Couillard's Liberal Party by some 18 points.
For the first time, Ms. Marois is seen as "best premier" by 27 per cent, while Mr. Couillard lags behind by seven points. Even the rate of dissatisfaction toward the government has diminished.
This is obviously due to the charter, as well as to the pathetic performance of the Liberal Official Opposition, which wasn't able to muster a clear position until this week – more than six months into the debate.
The charter's main and most controversial element – the ban on religious symbols in the public sector – is supported by 69 per cent of the francophone population, and even 40 per cent of Liberal voters. It's especially popular outside Montreal and Quebec City and with older people.
The PQ charter has overcome the strong and well-articulated opposition of leading public intellectuals, most media commentators, Montreal's elected officials and even three former premiers, as well as the province's most credible institutions, from the human rights commission to the Quebec bar to the school boards, health services and so on.
The Machiavellian plan of the PQ strategists is working: Take a wedge issue that will remobilize your base of core supporters, play on the widespread negative feelings toward visible immigrants (Muslims especially) while pretending to serve the noble goals of secularism and gender equity, ride on the instinctive reactions of the "real people" against the "disconnected elites" and there you are.
At first, most observers couldn't believe the PQ would dare run an election campaign on the backs of minorities, but this is what will happen. The plan is unfolding as it should: The parliamentary commission that is currently studying the bill will continue for more than two months – long enough to keep the issue alive until early spring, when the government could call an election.
The minister responsible for the secular bill, Bernard Drainville, announced at the outset that he wouldn't make compromises, not even with the Coalition Avenir Québec, the third party that proposes to limit the ban to teachers.
Indeed, the government doesn't want the bill to be adopted, so that the issue can serve as an election platform plank and maybe as a pretext to call a spring election, on the grounds that the government needs a majority to pass the popular bill.
The PQ strategy has not had an impact on the sovereignty option, though, which is stalled at 38 per cent, versus 50 per cent for the No side.
But the PQ plan has a second part. If the government wins a majority and adopts its secularism law, it will be only too happy to see the law attacked in court and declared unconstitutional – as it probably will be.
The PQ government will capitalize on the public anger against the dissidents and the Canadian legal framework – arguing that they deny Quebec's identity – in order to pave the way for a "winning" referendum. But even Machiavelli couldn't guarantee that this strategy will work.