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Pauline Marois loses riding then resigns, as Quebec Liberals hand Parti Québécois a stunning defeat

8 April 2014 General No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

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By  (National Post)

MONTREAL — She campaigned on a promise to rid the public sector of employees wearing hijabs, but in the end it was Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois who was shown the door by voters Monday — and with a slam.

One year after being chosen party leader, Philippe Couillard led the Quebec Liberals to a resounding majority victory that is sure to prompt serious soul-searching for a separatist PQ dealt one of its worst defeats ever.

With almost all polling stations reporting, the Liberals were elected or leading in 70 ridings, the PQ in 30, the Coalition Avenir Québec in 22 and Québec Solidaire in three. The Liberals had 41% of the popular vote, compared with 26% for the PQ, 23% for the CAQ and 8% for Québec Solidaire. For the PQ, that is its lowest share of the vote since its first election in 1970.

Mr. Couillard, a neurosurgeon who served as health minister under former premier Jean Charest, was elected in his riding of Roberval, a strongly nationalist riding that voted PQ in the last three elections. It is a remarkable rebound for the Liberals, who were defeated 19 months ago amid allegations that they had allowed corruption and collusion to flourish in Quebec.

In his victory speech in Saint-Félicien, Que., Mr. Couillard reached out to minorities who felt targeted by PQ policies.

“We share the values of generosity, compassion, solidarity and equality of men and women with our anglophone fellow citizens who also built Quebec and with our fellow citizens who came from all over the world to write the next chapter in our history with us,” he said.

“I want to tell them that the time of injury is over. Welcome, you are at home here.”

He also said the days of picking fights with Ottawa are finished. “I will act constructively so Quebec is once again a leader in the Canadian federation,” he said.

“Dear friends, the division is over. Reconciliation has arrived.”

For Ms. Marois, 65, the defeat spells the end of a political career stretching back to 1981 when she ran for the first time under René Lévesque. She was defeated in her riding of Charlevoix-Côte-de-Beaupré by Liberal challenger Caroline Simard.

Announcing she would step down as leader, Ms. Marois made a final appeal for sovereignty and for the defence of the French language Monday night. “I remain convinced, profoundly convinced, of one thing: We have everything to gain by making all our decisions ourselves,” she said.

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Ms. Marois called the election March 5 after 18 months atop a minority government, confident her pitch to protect Quebec’s identity would be enough to win a majority. But what PQ strategists pictured as their knockout blow, the announcement of media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau as a star candidate on the campaign’s first weekend, backfired. With his fist raised like a revolutionary, the former Quebecor chief executive announced his commitment “to make Quebec a country” and effectively pummeled his own side.

Mr. Péladeau won his seat in Saint-Jérôme Monday, but what’s left of the PQ caucus won’t be praising his contribution to the campaign. Instead of keeping to her campaign plan to play down the threat of a referendum, Ms. Marois was forced to address questions about independence. Once nicknamed the Concrete Lady for withstanding a 2011 caucus revolt, Ms. Marois crumbled this time. Her musings about a shared currency and customs-free border reinforced suspicions that, if elected with a majority, the PQ would do everything in its power to hold a third referendum.

Mr. Couillard, 56, zeroed in on the PQ’s Achilles heel, saying the party was intent on destroying Canada. “How does removing Quebecers’ Canadian citizenship — because that is what it means — improve their standard of living?” he asked. “The answer: It doesn’t help Quebecers. It is going to harm Quebec.”

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Couillard was frank about his attachment to Canada, saying Canadian citizenship “is the envy of the entire planet.” His heart-on-the-sleeve federalism earned him attacks for being too soft in the defence of Quebec, but he refused to accept the PQ’s portrayal of Quebecers as a people under siege.

“Our identity in Quebec is strong,” he said the day the election was called. “I detest this government that is in the habit of painting us as threatened people, weak people.”

Francois Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images

Francois Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty ImagesParti Québécois supporters watch the provicial vote results at a hotel in Montreal, April 7, 2014.

The spectre of a referendum drove voters to the Liberals, and PQ efforts to redirect attention to its charter of Quebec values only exposed the depth of intolerance among some PQ candidates and supporters. The most contentious element of the charter would prohibit all public sector workers from wearing such conspicuous religious symbols as the hijab, turban and kippa. The PQ said the measure is needed to ensure the religious neutrality of the state.

One PQ candidate was dropped for having posted a “F— Islam” message on his Facebook page, while another, Louise Mailloux, was allowed to remain despite having written that rabbis conspire to levy a “kosher tax” on consumers. (Ms. Mailloux was defeated in the Montreal riding of Gouin by Françoise David of Québec Solidaire.)

A week before the vote, Ms. Marois invited writer and charter supporter Janette Bertrand to speak at a major campaign event. Ms. Bertrand said the PQ’s charter was needed because one day rich McGill students, presumably Muslims, might prevent women from swimming in the pool in her condominium building. Ms. Marois defended Ms. Bertrand against accusations of xenophobia, saying she was simply “speaking from her heart.”

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