The Parti Québécois wasted no time flinging barbs at their new nemesis, Jean Charest. In fact, their attacks last week merely continued the offensive launched on March 2 when Daniel Johnson announced his resignation as Quebec Liberal leader and the movement began to draft Charest as his successor. Sovereigntists have attempted to cast Charest as the candidate of English Canada—and, worse, of the federal Liberals. Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard recently declared at a PQ gathering that voting for Charest “will be to vote for Jean Chrétien.” Given the Prime Minister’s deep unpopularity among francophone Quebecers, it is a label no aspiring premier wants to be saddled with. But provincial Liberals say it won’t stick—given the well-known political antagonism between the two. Charest, who advocates a conciliatory approach to Quebec, has repeatedly slammed Chrétien’s so-called Plan B: Ottawa’s hardline response to sovereignty. “Charest has no policies to defend that have come from the federal level,” maintains Liberal strategist John Parisella.
That can only help him. Now that he has formally entered provincial politics, Charest must be seen as an ardent defender of Quebec’s interests if he hopes to become premier. “If he was against Plan B as a federal politician, he’ll be even more so as a provincial politician,” predicts Louis Balthazar, a Laval University political scientist. Adds Conservative Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, a former adviser to Bourassa: “I hope—and think—what he’ll do is determine his own agenda.” And while Chrétien promised that federal Liberals will “do everything we can” to help Charest, for some Quebec Liberals the best thing their federal cousins can do is lie low.
But Charest will need to do more than keep his distance from Chrétien. The failures of past Liberal leaders, who unsuccessfully pushed for constitutional reforms to meet Quebec’s demands for increased autonomy, have frequently resulted only in an upsurge of support for sovereignty. The party needs a new strategy, maintains Parisella. “It has got to be a new approach to federalprovincial relations. And it has got to be a more outward-looking nationalism and one that deals with issues that affect Quebecers,” adds Parisella. Charest left no doubt last week in Sherbrooke that Quebec’s economic well-being is a key issue. Seizing upon referendum fatigue, Charest declared: “Our economy and our future are held hostage to a political debate that costs us so very dearly."
Charest peppered his speech with phrases like “a new sense of hope." That is clearly evident among provincial Liberals, who anticipate that a youthful leader—at 39, Charest is 20 years younger than Bouchard—will help attract more youth to the party. But although opinion polls showed Charest soaring ahead of the PQ, that could quickly change in the rough-and-tumble of Quebec politics. Claude Gauthier, vice-president of the polling firm CROP Inc., says: “That doesn’t mean to say he’ll lose all his charm, but I think people will evaluate him alongside Mr. Bouchard.” The battle for Quebecers’ affections promises to be fierce.
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