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Conservative leadership candidates Patrick Brown, left, Leslyn Lewis, Scott Aitchison, Pierre Poilievre, Jean Charest and Roman Baber, pose for photos after the French-language Conservative leadership debate on May 25, 2022.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Conservative leadership candidates attacked their opponents’ ethics during the only official French-language debate, with Jean Charest, Pierre Poilievre and Patrick Brown highlighting past controversies, while also sparring over how to tackle the cost of living and protect the French language.

In the last scheduled debate of the campaign on Wednesday night, the perceived front-runners distinguished themselves from the other candidates with their bilingual skills. Being able to communicate in both official languages is widely accepted as a baseline requirement for any national party leader.

The three remaining candidates – Scott Aitchison, Leslyn Lewis and Roman Baber – often struggled to break through in their second-language, frequently reading from their pre-scripted speaking notes, even during sections of the debate that were meant to feature freewheeling exchanges.

The French debate was moderated by Marc-Olivier Fortin, a former Conservative Party executive. It was held in Laval, a suburb north of Montreal, in front of a rowdy audience of about 700 people, who largely supported Mr. Charest or Mr. Poilievre and cheered and booed the candidates’ responses frequently throughout the two-hour debate.

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Mr. Poilievre, an Ontario MP, often focused his attacks on Mr. Brown, his former caucus colleague and current mayor of Brampton.

“You have no credibility on law and order when you have been found guilty of breaking ethics laws,” said Mr. Poilievre, in reference to a 2018 ruling by the Ontario integrity commissioner about Mr. Brown’s time as provincial Progressive Conservative leader. The ruling found Mr. Brown had failed to report rental income and did not disclose a $375,000 loan.

“The only one here who broke Elections Canada’s laws is Mr. Poilievre,” Mr. Brown replied, in reference to a 2017 compliance agreement in which Mr. Poilievre was found in violation of election laws for wearing a partisan logo when he made a government announcement in 2015.

Mr. Brown struggled at times with his French grammar and searched for words but was able to get his message across and engage in free debate.

After Mr. Charest took a shot at Mr. Poilievre for his support of the trucker convoy and vowed to bring in a law against blockades, Mr. Poilievre interjected, raising Quebec’s Charbonneau Commission, which investigated corruption in public sector construction contracts.

“Mr. Charest, I remember the Charbonneau Commission. ... Truckers have nothing to learn from you when it comes to law and order,” he said.

In response, Mr. Charest said the inquiry did not find any links between political donations and awarded contracts. “I can lend you my notes because it seems your briefings were not well prepared,” said Mr. Charest.

The only official French debate took place at a politically sensitive time for Quebec. Two controversial laws approved by Quebec’s National Assembly were catapulted to the national spotlight this week: On Wednesday, the federal government said it would participate in a legal challenge against Bill 21, which bans religious symbols in some public-sector jobs, if the challenge reaches the Supreme Court. And on Tuesday the province adopted Bill 96, which expands Quebec’s language laws.

Bill 96 is strongly criticized by Quebec’s English-speaking minority. The law will expand a requirement for French to be “generalized” in the workplace by applying it to businesses with 25 or more employees. It also states that after the first six months, immigrants will receive services exclusively in French, with some exceptions.

Mr. Brown and Mr. Aitchison, an Ontario MP, both said they opposed Bill 96, with Mr. Brown saying the language law runs counter to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr. Charest, who needs a strong showing in Quebec for his path to victory, underscored the importance of provincial jurisdiction and said protecting French is a “sacred duty” of elected officials. His campaign said he would not remain neutral if a challenge to Bill 96 reaches the Supreme Court.

Mr. Poilievre also called protecting French a priority.

On economic policy, Mr. Charest attacked Mr. Poilievre over his recent pledge to fire the Bank of Canada Governor if he formed government. Mr. Charest said that position betrayed a lack of understanding of economic policy and suggested cost-of-living concerns are better addressed by measures such as supporting affordable child care.

Mr. Poilievre said he would tackle inflation by cutting taxes on gas and slashing the deficit. He was roundly criticized by other candidates for championing cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, as a chance to “opt out” of inflation. Cryptocurrencies are largely unregulated and their value has plunged in recent months.

Opposition to, or a lack of clarity around, abortion rights have hurt Conservative fortunes in Quebec in past general elections and Mr. Charest sought to force Mr. Poilievre to clearly state his position. The Ontario MP said he is “pro-choice.”

Mr. Charest, Mr. Brown and Mr. Aitchison have previously said they are pro-choice. Ms. Lewis is against abortion and Mr. Baber has said he doesn’t think governments should have a say in how people start a family.

Expectations were high for Mr. Charest, who was debating on home turf. He delivered a strong showing on Wednesday and did what he needed to do, said Yan Plante, a former senior staffer in Stephen Harper’s government who is staying neutral in this race. However, whether that will be enough is unclear because Mr. Poilievre also had a strong performance, Mr. Plante said.

While Mr. Plante said the Ontario MP sometimes sounds more like an opposition leader than a prime minister, he added that Mr. Polievre is the front-runner and the message he delivered was simple and is popular among party members.

Rudy Husny, also a former adviser in Mr. Harper’s government, said there should be a language requirement for leadership candidates because the party is risking its reputation in Quebec when it puts unilingual speakers on the ballot.

“Their level of French was insufficient and they didn’t belong on that stage,” Mr. Husny said about Ms. Lewis, Mr. Aitchison and Mr. Baber.

The party has reserved the right to hold one final debate in August. The winner will be announced by the party on Sept. 10 at an event in Ottawa.

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