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Quebec Premier Francois Legault presents new programs on immigration at a news conference on May 25 at the Legislature in Quebec City.Karoline Boucher/The Canadian Press

Economic migrants to Quebec will have to be able to speak and write French, Premier François Legault announced Thursday, saying he has a responsibility to protect the province’s francophone identity.

Unveiling the strict language requirements at a National Assembly press conference, Mr. Legault said the move was a bid to halt the decline in French in Quebec.

“In the last 10, 15, 20 years, we see the percentage of people speaking French is decreasing so we have to do something,” he said. “I think it’s important that we request that they speak French before being accepted.”

All but economic immigrants with exceptional talents or a unique expertise, who might include doctors, will be subject to the language bar to entry, he said.

Currently migration is based on a points-based system, recognizing skills and qualifications, with extra credit for speaking French.

Hady Anne, Quebec spokesman for Solidarity Across Borders, which represents migrants, said the new policy could restrict the number of skilled migrant workers Quebec businesses have been calling for. He said the province should work on retaining francophone migrants already working there and those who have learned French since arriving.

“A lot of migrants are not attracted by Quebec. They come here and move to other provinces because they have a negative experience there,” he said. “They should give migrants a chance to show their skills and then develop a love for the language.”

Mr. Legault revealed he is also considering increasing the province’s annual target of 50,000 immigrants a year to 60,000 by 2027. He said he was launching a consultation on keeping the current 50,000 target or raising it incrementally, and wanted to hear what Quebeckers, including experts, thought.

The announcement is a departure from his position during the provincial election last fall. During a debate on immigration targets, Mr. Legault said it would be “a bit suicidal” for Quebec to welcome more than 50,000 immigrants a year because it would make it difficult to properly integrate newcomers and teach them French. The comment provoked a backlash from the opposition Liberals and Québec solidaire during the campaign.

He said Quebec has full control over choosing economic migrants, who account for 65 per cent of newcomers to the province.

“In the future – this is the first time we’ve done this in the history of Quebec – to be eligible to make an application to emigrate to Quebec you will have to have a proficiency in French,” Mr. Legault said.

He said his Coalition Avenir Québec government will reverse the decline in French “and when I retire I’ll be very proud of that.”

“We will be able to actually stop the decline of French,” he said. “We’ll be able to make sure that our kids and our grandkids are able to continue to live in a French-speaking Quebec.”

He said the French language is “the heart” of the Quebec nation. Some former Quebec governments had not been demanding enough in insisting that newcomers have a knowledge of the language.

“Unfortunately since many years now we see the percentage of francophones in Quebec decreasing,” he said. “In fact, on the island of Montreal right now we’re at 48 per cent of francophones at home, so I think that if we want to make sure long term that we still speak French in Quebec, it’s important that we stop this decrease and start seeing an increase in percentage of francophones.”

He said it would be possible for people without French as a first language, such as Spanish speakers from South America, to qualify for entry if they learn French before applying to move to Quebec. The province is to carry out a recruitment drive in francophone countries and Latin America to attract skilled economic migrants.

Earlier this month, the Quebec Premier rejected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to allow 500,000 permanent immigrants to settle in Canada by 2025.

Mr. Legault said there would be “no question” of Quebec accepting such a big number, saying it is important to properly integrate and house immigrants.

The Quebec legislature adopted a motion declaring Ottawa’s plan incompatible with protecting French in Quebec. The motion said that “it is up to Quebec alone to make its own choices” on immigration.

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