François Legault is a popular fellow these days. On a recent morning, the businessman and politician (he insists on being referred to in that order) bounded into the wood-panelled confines of Restaurant Bonaparte in Old Montreal, wearing a suit, a wide smile and carrying a mobile phone that wouldn’t stay quiet. Many people—journalists especially—want Legault’s ear right now, and he’s massaged his answers into a tight, quotable boilerplate.
“It’s time the PQ stops being in denial,” the former education minister says of the Parti Québécois, the sovereignist party where he spent his entire political career. “Sovereignty isn’t a probability, and many people in the party know it.” Quebec, he adds, is “mired in stagnation.” Usually, these conversations end with the same question: will he run for office on a platform that promotes putting an end to the national question that has dominated Quebec for over 40 years?
Many Quebecers are hoping he picks up the damned hammer, already. In February, Legault and businessman Charles Sirois launched Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec (Coalition for the future of Quebec), which has been alternatively described as a “think tank,” an “apolitical and non-partisan reflection group,” and a “political movement” that is “expected to morph into a full-fledged political vehicle in time for the next Quebec election.” Legault, who prefers the term “coalition,” is the CAQ’s de facto leader and wrote much of its platform: a right-of-centre doctrine advocating more personal responsibility, less state intervention and a wholesale revamping of the way the province delivers health and education services. It mentions sovereignty only to say the movement is dépassé. According to successive polls taken over the last four months, Legault would easily waltz into the premier’s office as the head of a majority government. This, despite having no candidate slate, no party to govern and no structure to harvest hard cash from all that goodwill.
And while he has actively sought out the spotlight to promote the CAQ, Legault is still perched firmly on the fence. Every reflection on his political future is hedged to the hilt—a product of genuine indecision, perhaps, or his own version of James Brown’s cape routine, whereby the grizzled politician is compelled back to the stage for one more kick at the can. “Neither I nor my wife want to spend 10 years in politics, but I feel a certain responsibility in Quebec to leave something to my kids, a prosperous Quebec, and right now that’s not what I see,” he tells Maclean’s. “The Sunday night at old folks’ homes, all the time you spend in Quebec City, the cocktails and all that, it’s not the part of my life I adore. At the same time, I’m a man of action.”
It begs the question: what does it say about the state of Quebec politics that Quebecers are overwhelmingly prepared to hand the keys to a man who isn’t even sure he wants the job? And why are they lining up behind the right-of-centre Legault a mere two months after electing the officially socialist NDP en masse?
His popularity, observers say, stems partly from the fact that many Quebecers have, like Legault, grown weary of the sovereignty question. Legault, who co-founded Montreal-based Air Transat in 1986, left politics two years ago after 11 years as a PQ MNA. Once a committed sovereignist—in 2003, he said Quebec “is ungovernable as a province”—Legault has renounced the movement, saying it distracts from the province’s pressing economic and educational problems.
And things have rarely been worse for his former party. Barely five weeks after receiving a 93 per cent approval rating from party delegates, PQ leader Pauline Marois is mired in intra-party upheaval after five MNAs quit to sit as independents. Torment is nothing new to the PQ. What is odd, however, is how Quebecers are cooling on sovereignty at a time when the province is likely set to lose power within Canada. Three of the country’s fastest growing provinces are slated to gain a total of 30 seats when boundaries are redrawn next year, bringing Quebec’s total representation to well below the historical 25 per cent threshold. Losing power to Ontario and the West is exactly the type of red meat issue on which sovereignists would normally feast. Yet as shown by the wholesale collapse of the Bloc Québécois in May’s federal election, there hasn’t been a corresponding uptick in support for sovereignty. Just the opposite, in fact.
As Péquistes often point out, support for Quebec sovereignty has rarely dipped below 40 per cent. What they often neglect to mention, however, is how deeply they actually believe in secession. With a few exceptions, Laval University political scientist Guy Laforest points out, interest in actually separating from Canada has slowly drifted downward, at about the same rate as the PQ’s share of the popular vote, since 1998.
For Legault, the deal breaker was the party’s acquiescence to what he calls “pressure groups”—namely unions—who through political contributions and sizable voter rolls hold both the PQ and the Liberals hostage. “Quebec was going in circles. No one wanted to shape policy. I tried to propose a plan to generate more wealth within Quebec, but I’d always get shut down.” These plans, outlined in the CAQ’s “position papers,” include incentives to increase worker productivity, increasing tax credits for companies investing in new technology and slashing Quebec’s debt through fees levied on resource development.
Legault would further abolish Quebec’s school boards and hike teacher pay significantly. Teachers, in exchange, would be subjected to yearly reviews and face losing their jobs if they underperform. Legault would also bring incentives to health care delivery. The result, according to Legault: every Quebecer would have a family doctor. (Currently, two million in the province go without, according to CAQ numbers.)
But Legault’s policies aren’t the star of the show—he is, something that seems to irk him. “It worries me, because I don’t want there to be change for the sake of change,” Legault says. “People tell me that I’m first in the polls. I say yes, but do they know what I want to do?”
Some of that still remains unclear, however. His categorical take on sovereignty aside—“I’m not going into politics for the cause of sovereignty,” he told Maclean’s—Legault still has some very Péquiste-like reservations about Quebec’s position in Canada. He says Quebec must control every aspect of its language policy (code for ending official bilingualism at the federal level in the province) and decries the country’s policy on multiculturalism, saying that it is slowly assimilating Quebec into the English rest-of-Canada reality. The CAQ’s “position paper” on Quebec’s culture will be released later this summer, and promises controversy, especially if it suggests rescinding official multiculturalism and bilingualism in the province. At the very least, this would cue the inevitable, vexing, age-old question: what happens if the rest of the country balks at Quebec’s demands?
Legault hasn’t got that far yet. His phone rings too much these days. There are interviews to give, governments to decry, an extended honeymoon with Quebecers to enjoy just a little bit longer. Destiny awaits him. That call, he might just answer.