His chauffeur-driven black Toyota Sienna was held up in Montreal traffic, which slows to a crawl come April, when orange cones seem to spring from the ground. But Nicolas Marceau looks perfectly relaxed as he takes a seat at the sunlit corner table of Laloux, dropping his canvas laptop bag unceremoniously on the bistro's hardwood floor.
As the Finance Minister of Quebec, the country's most indebted province per capita, Mr. Marceau has a tremendous weight on his shoulders. And yet, as his Canadian counterparts were losing sleep over tough budget decisions, he was reaching something close to cruise-control.
The road hasn't been easy. The past nine months have been rocked by a series of controversies and flip-flops that have come to characterize, in the eyes of many, Pauline Marois's minority Parti Québécois government.
Ms. Marois tactically got the budget out of the way right after the election, at a time when no opposition party wanted to defeat the new government and return to campaign buses. But for Mr. Marceau, who feared government spending would spin out of control as the PQ settled into power after nine years of Liberal rule, it was a way of tackling Quebec's fiscal problems head on – not putting them off until later. "Governments always find good ideas to spend money on," he says with an ironic smile.
Reconciling the PQ's electoral promises with the province's fiscal reality turned out to be a baptism by fire for Mr. Marceau. Freshly sworn in, he was forced to renege on the party's cornerstone campaign promise to scrap the health tax, when it became clear the province could ill afford to lose $1-billion in annual revenue, without resorting to dramatic measures such as retroactive taxes. This rabbit-in-the-hat proposal created an uproar, ruining the PQ's political honeymoon.
Mr. Marceau now rationalizes the decision, calling it a minority government's compromise. "My understanding of the mandate that was given to us is that we can do a certain amount of things, but we can't act as we wish, irrespective of what Quebeckers think," he says. "By compromising on what we campaigned on, we are being respectful of our democracy."
The controversy thrust the little-known member of Quebec's National Assembly into the limelight. His four daughters and his Spanish partner Teresa Moraga, a statistician in epidemiology at McGill University, who is never seen at political events but who reads every newspaper clipping, were ill-prepared for the media frenzy.
Until 2009, Mr. Marceau led the comfortable life of a well-regarded economics professor, residing on the outskirts of the trendy Plateau neighbourhood. He walked to his office at the Université du Québec à Montréal – his car was little more than a nuisance that had to be moved from one side of the street to the other to avoid parking tickets. When he dined at Laloux, two or three times a year, it was to treat a visiting professor to this classic French bistro with high ceilings, large mirrors, white tablecloths and indispensable copper counter.
Between two long-winded answers – Mr. Marceau confesses that he can't quite abandon his professorial style – he digs into his salmon, accompanied by Jerusalem artichokes, candied lemons and parsley roots, which he has never eaten before. He is lean, despite the busy schedule that has cut into the 40 kilometres a week he used to run, washing his lunch down with sparkling water, then an espresso.
When Ms. Marois came calling in June, 2009, he knew why. Businessman François Legault had just quit the PQ and politics (only to return later to launch the rival Coalition Avenir Québec party), and the party leader was looking to beef up the economic credentials of her team. It took him a week to decide. "I believe in political engagement. It sure is nice to comment on economic policy on a TV show as a professor, but in the end, you are only a spectator with limited influence," he says.
Mr. Marceau thinks governments have a role to play in fostering economic growth, by subsidizing research and development, by funding startups that are still too small to attract venture capital or by building infrastructure. He admires former premier Bernard Landry for giving birth to Montreal's video game industry through generous tax credits, and would like to use similar salary-based incentives to establish a thriving green-technology sector.
"My, we have all that is needed: electricity surpluses, specialized engineers, expertise in batteries and trains," he says, using quaint expressions such as ma foi du ciel or watered-down swear words such as tabarouette with a prudishness that is now uncommon in Quebec.
That his political action would go through the PQ was a given. He comes from a family of Quebec City intellectuals: his grandfather was a doctor with 14 children, all of whom went to university and became doctors, lawyers and priests; his father, Claude, became an ear, nose and throat specialist. While none ran for office, all of the siblings, including Claude, who was friends with PQ founder René Lévesque, believed Quebec should go its separate way. But as the family met for its annual New Year's party, the 14 aunts and uncles and 60 cousins would argue this to death.
"It was quite a spectacle," he recounts.
Yet Mr. Marceau did not grow up in a bourgeois Haute-Ville neighbourhood. His parents split up when he was a toddler and he was raised with his sister at his mother's house in LeMoyne, a small blue-collar community on the South Shore of Montreal. Not much of a jock, the teenager played the drums in a garage band that did covers of Rush and Jethro Tull.
Our paths crossed when he attended university. At the Sainte-Hélène Island municipal pool, we worked side by side, tending lockers, mopping floors and honing our Hacky Sack skills. While I spent two summers there, he spent four: "I thought I would never get out of there," he recalls. Mr. Marceau finally landed a job in the internal audit department of a financial trust owned by the life insurer Les Coopérants. That summer job remains his only experience in the financial sector.
Economic policy, Quebec politics, French cinema and student affairs were hotly debated by the pool workers. Mr. Marceau himself had been engaged in the student movement in college, where he met with ANEQ student association members, whose modern-day descendants would be the most militant "red squares."
"I went into student politics to change education through such things as teacher evaluations," he says. "But they were in a proletarian revolution against a bourgeois class associated to a repressive state. This was a shock to me. I wasn't in a world of revolution, nor will I ever be."
This pragmatic outlook still puts Mr. Marceau at odds with some of Ms. Marois' more militant cabinet members. But while Mr. Marceau may look unimposing with his boyish figure that sometimes looks lost in a business suit, he has "character," as one cabinet minister puts it.
"He won't let anyone step on his toes," the minister adds. "And that has helped him establish his authority."
If Mr. Marceau has revisited a number of the PQ's pledges, there is one promise he will never compromise on: "Eliminating Quebec's deficit is non-negotiable," he says. "People live on the illusion that if you put it off, it will somehow be more easy to achieve this down the road, while it is the exact opposite."
But that message is lost on the PQ's traditional social-democratic allies, who are angry at budget cuts that mean government spending will grow by a lowly 1.9 per cent. Even Ms. Marois, who publicly evoked the possibility in a TV interview of waiting a little longer before balancing the province's books, appears to have wavered when confronted with her government's falling popularity. But Mr. Marceau denies that the two don't see things eye-to-eye.
This is the message that Mr. Marceau delivered to American credit rating agencies and financial institutions when he discreetly flew to New York in April to reassure them of Quebec's determination to pay off its debts. "I am perfectly at ease with the fact that Quebec offers very generous public services to its citizens," he says. "But in return, we must pay for them. This is not something you can shovel forward to future generations."
And for now, the unassuming Mr. Marceau is holding his ground.
Born June 23, 1964, in Montreal.
Family: Partner Teresa Moraga, daughters Jeanne, Valérie, Rachel and Madeleine.
Holds bachelor and master of science degrees in economics from the University of Montreal and a doctorate in economics from Queen's University.
The four articles in his thesis were written under the supervision of Robyn Boadway, one of the foremost experts in fiscal federalism. One of them asked whether unemployment insurance was the best way to redistribute wealth.
Economics professor at Laval University (1992-96) and the Université du Québec à Montréal (1996-2009).
Published 29 articles on public economic policy in journals such as American Economic Review.
Five-time winner of UQAM's teaching award.
Co-recipient in 2002 of the Harry Johnson Prize for best article published in the Canadian Journal of Economics.
Loves music, from rock to jazz. Prefers to buy CDs than songs on iTunes because of the photos and lyrics on the sleeve.
Runs when he finds time.
On the Charbonneau Commission on corruption: "I find it incredibly difficult to watch. It's an awful spectacle. It's worst than our worst suspicions."
On Quebec's scandal-plagued engineering firms: "The companies that participated in a system, they still have a right to exist and to prosper. They employ thousands of people. It's out of the question to let them fall."
On the federal Conservatives: "Historically, they favoured a much more supple and asymmetric federalism than the liberals, but nowadays, they are prone to meddling."
On being a politician: "I want to say the truth and I speak my mind. But some reporters are really good at putting banana peels in front of you. I would rather avoid a sensitive topic altogether than to use doublespeak."