To the new PQ leader: Good luck.

Jean-François Lisée takes over the Parti Québécois at a time when it seems the party has nowhere to go but down

Jean-Francois Lisee, centre, reacts to allegations about his travel expenses in Quebec City, flanked by wife Sandrine Perrot and interim PQ leader Stephane Bedard. (Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

Jean-Francois Lisee, centre, reacts to allegations about his travel expenses in Quebec City, flanked by wife Sandrine Perrot and interim PQ leader Stephane Bedard. (Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

The Parti Québécois has a new leader, its sixth in nine years, in Jean-François Lisée. On its own, this isn’t particularly surprising. Even in the best of times, the PQ has always been hard on its leaders. In worse times—as in the last 13 years, when the party has held power for all of 18 months—turnover of party leadership has taken on abattoir-like proportions.

Nor is it particularly surprising that Lisée, 58, won. His instincts and cunning have made him a rare constant in the upper echelons of the Quebec’s sovereignist movement, beset as it is not only by leadership woes but frustration and failure as well. He was a journalist when he needed to be, a political strategist when it mattered—under Jacques Parizeau, for the 1995 referendum—an academic when the opportunity arose and, lastly, a politician when he knew he would win.

He was canny enough to step out of last year’s PQ leadership race when it was clear that Pierre Karl Péladeau would win, and canny enough to stick around, knowing that what he called the “time bomb” of Péladeau’s leadership was doomed to fail. In this race, Lisée overtook presumptive frontrunner Alexandre Cloutier, who held a 20-point lead over him at the outset of the campaign, with almost freakish ease.

So what has he inherited? For starters, a party in disarray. Again, this is nothing new, but at least Cloutier had youth (he is 38) and much of the caucus on his side. To put it mildly, Lisée has a reputation for brusqueness amongst many of his colleagues. René Lévesque could charm with a simple wave of his cigarette and a well-placed cuss word. Lucien Bouchard started fights by arching his eyebrows. Lisée is much more in the mould of Parizeau: haughty, hubristic, detached.

Then again, precedent suggests that the leadership isn’t the problem. In 1994, the party received roughly 45 per cent of the popular vote. It hasn’t matched this result in any of the following six elections. In 2014, under Pauline Marois, the party just barely garnered 25 per cent voter support—its worst showing since 1970.

Academics, demographers and pundits alike have pontificated as to why this is, and have generally come to the same conclusion. Sovereignty, the lightning rod for the near entirety of Quebec’s Baby Boomer generation, doesn’t give similar frissons to younger Gen X, Gen Y and Millennial types.

While predicting the end of the PQ has made fools and liars out of many, one recent study by members of the Centre for the Study of Demographic Citizenship puts a year on it: 2034. According to the report, that is the year that the demographic headwinds will become too much for the PQ’s withering base of true believers.

Already, the signs are there. The PQ was born and flourished in Montreal, home to rollicking linguistic and economic battles as well as Lévesque, Lise Payette, Gérald Godin and other brash dreamers. In 1976, the party won 15 of the city’s 29 ridings. It counted 300,000 mostly young, very militant members.

Today, the party has all of three MNAs on the island of Montreal. The PQ was born to despise former premier Maurice Duplessis, yet it now draws much of its support from the same deeply conservative rural heartland that kept Duplessis in power for so long. Its membership stands at roughly 70,000, and has an average age of 60, according to PQ president Raymond Archambault.

Sovereignty, the party’s raison d’être, is so unpopular that Lisée has pledged to not hold a referendum in a first PQ mandate. His first years as premier would be dedicated solely to the defeat of the Liberals. In order to placate the forever restive party base, Lisée has re-embarked on a campaign based on issues of identity and immigration.

He suggested a ban on the burka and blamed immigration for everything from unemployment to the decline of French in Montreal. Then he accused the media of obsessing over his statements. In delivery if not in substance, it is a near carbon copy of the blame-the-elites populist hustle perpetuated by Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Kellie Leitch. And in Lisée’s case, at least, it worked.

This is familiar stuff by now. In 2013, the party introduced the so-called Quebec values charter, which sought to ban all “conspicuous” religious symbols from the body of anyone receiving a government paycheque. When I suggested the charter was a populist gambit akin to the U.S.’s Tea Party in a New York Times column, Lisée and charter architect Bernard Drainville wrote a letter to the paper saying, no, we aren’t the Tea Party. We’re more like Thomas Jefferson, separating church from state. Chutzpah is a fantastic word that nevertheless fails to capture the sheer shamelessness of this argument.

Here’s more chutzpah: shortly after the 2014 election, Lisée disavowed the charter, saying he couldn’t bear the thought of anyone losing their job for wearing a veil. “I don’t want to cause stress for 1,000 people, 100 people, one single person,” he said a few months after the 2014 election. “I’m a humanist.”

Two years later, it was all burkas and immigrants once again. He wouldn’t ban religious symbols; he would just mandate that the government display, in writing, its “preference” against the wearing of such things. Listening to him, only an amnesiac could avoid becoming cynical.

Freshly elected leader, Lisée becomes Quebec’s leader of the Opposition, and faces a Liberal government stricken by scandal and general ineptitude. I spoke to several Liberal operatives before the leadership vote, and all indicated that they preferred Lisée to Cloutier. “He’s more divisive and will keep the cultural communities mobilized against him,” one told me. “But he’s crafty, and I wouldn’t underestimate his capacity to adapt to the situation.”

Lisée is more of a threat to the Coalition Avenir Québec, the right-leaning nationalist party and the main respite for certain Quebec federalists and disaffected sovereignists alike. Internal CAQ polling suggested CAQ leader François Legault was better on identity issues and the like than Cloutier. Lisée is another story, particularly since he’d be unencumbered by the referendum millstone in a first mandate.

But herein lies the latter-day PQ’s fatal flaw. The party exists to remove Quebec from Canada, which has limited appeal at best among actual Quebecers. Without that as glue, even in the short term, the Parti Québécois is a political party like any other, in an already crowded field.

If he wants CAQ votes, he’d have to take the party to the right—and lose support to the lefty Québec solidaire. If he goes left, he loses CAQ support. If he harps on identity issues, he again loses to Québec solidaire, whose sensibilities on hijabs and the like are closer to the NDP’s. If he doesn’t harp on identity, he loses ethnic nationalists. And as a sovereignist party, he won’t likely get any federalist support even if he promises not to hold a referendum.

To lead the PQ is to live in a constant political conundrum, and bigger politicians than Lisée have left the party bloodied and bitter as a result. It’s almost cruel to ponder the party’s fate in the coming years, and crueller still to wish Lisée good luck.

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