August 23, 2018 8:00 pm

CAQ’s Legault offers Quebecers ‘middle way’ as election campaign begins

Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader François Legault during a interview Monday, August 6, 2018 at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

François Legault will be hoping it’s third time lucky.

The leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec  has failed twice to become premier but is now the closest he’s ever been to the job after refining his political message over the years.

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Legault, the multimillionaire co-founder of the Air Transat airline, has positioned the Coalition as the safe middle ground between the Liberals and his former political party, the pro-independence Parti Québécois.

READ MORE: A look at Coalition Avenir Québec of 2018

His offer to Quebecers ahead of the Oct. 1 election is simple: the CAQ is a federalist, economic-minded alternative to the Liberals and a nationalist, identity-oriented substitute for the PQ.

After almost 15 years of Liberal government and continued low support for Quebec sovereignty, Legault has become the man of the moment, says Yvan Lamonde, a McGill University professor and political commentator.

Legault’s approach to politics reflects the growing tendency of Quebecers to have a “fluidity of convictions,” Lamonde said in an interview.

READ MORE: New Quebec poll suggests Coalition Avenir Québec has healthy lead

Many Quebecers who were once ardent sovereigntists have become disenchanted with the independence movement and are looking elsewhere, he said.

Moreover, during the past three federal elections, large numbers of Quebecers switched from the Bloc Québécois to the NDP and then to the Liberals under Justin Trudeau.

“Legault represents this facility with which we change political allegiance,” Lamonde said. “And he represents a kind of midway.

“He is the figure who really represents change without too much risk — and that’s the midway that he has always looked for.”

When he founded the Coalition in 2011, Legault promised Quebecers his government would concentrate on Quebec’s problems and not talk about a referendum on independence “for at least 10 years.”

‘A strong Quebec within Canada’

That slogan has since morphed to better reflect the times.

In 2015, after third-placed finishes in the 2012 and 2014 elections, the CAQ produced a new manifesto and, with it, a new way of describing its intentions for province’s future.

READ MORE: Can a new candidate change the CAQ’s image with women and minorities?

Legault, 61, now wants “a strong Quebec within Canada.”

On Thursday, the first official day of the election campaign, Legault was asked if he agrees with Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, who described himself as a Quebecer and said “that’s my way of being Canadian.”

“No,” Legault responded.

“I would say it’s Quebec first. It’s clear we’ll stay in Canada … but for us, it’s Quebec first.”

Legault, who was once a staunch sovereigntist as a cabinet minister in the PQ governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, now says he has no time for debates on Quebec independence.

“Never, ever, will a Coalition government hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty,” is Legault’s latest line.

Anglophones in Montreal may not believe him, but his message has seemingly convinced enough francophones across the province — a reality reflected in opinion polls that have indicated his party has been in the lead for the past several months.

WATCH: CAQ unveils party platform for upcoming October election

In 1998, about 12 years after he co-founded Air Transat, Legault entered politics and shepherded a major reform in the education system during his stint as minister in that department between 1998 and 2002.

Legault, who revealed in 2014 he and his wife have assets totalling about $10 million, served as health minister from 2002 to 2003 before the Liberals won the election that year.

The CAQ is pledging to cut taxes and focus on attracting more foreign investment. Yet Legault’s party also promises to reinvest in education, increase the hours children spend in school and bring back a universal price for subsidized daycare spots.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard is attempting to paint Legault as a chaotic force, describing his policies as a “catalogue of clashes.”

READ MORE: CAQ campaigns in the West Island

One of Legault’s most controversial policies would force new immigrants to pass a French-language test before they become eligible for citizenship.

Legault also recently promised to adopt a so-called secularism charter within the first year of his party forming a government. The charter would prohibit state employees such as teachers, judges and police officers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols at work.

The measure would certainly trigger court challenges but Legault promised to use Sec. 33 of the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which allows governments to override certain rights granted under the legislation.

READ MORE: High-profile police officer moves to politics as CAQ candidate

Legault also wants to abolish school boards, a policy the English community has vowed to fight.

Geoffrey Chambers, president of a Montreal-based Anglo-rights advocacy group, said in an interview his organization would challenge the proposal.

“If the government — whatever government — tries to dismantle English school boards,” Chambers said. “We will use whatever method and means available to oppose them.”

© 2018 The Canadian Press

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