Charest comes out swinging in first Québec debate

The party leaders of each of the four main political parties in Québec held their first debate Sunday in advance of the province’s September 4 election, with three additional one-on-one debates to follow tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday.

It’s always difficult to tell whether debates will change the dynamic of an election campaign, and it’s no different in this election.

Going into the debate, it was expected that the leader with the biggest target would be Jean Charest (pictured above, second to left), the leader of the centrist, federalist Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ) and premier of Québec since 2003.

The PLQ, according to recent polls, is struggling against the leftist, sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ), and the new sorta-center-right-ish, sorta autonomous-ish Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) is polling an increasingly strong third place — a poll released Friday night showed the PQ with 35% to just 30% for the Liberals and 25% for the CAQ.  Most ominously, the poll shows that for the first time, anglophone voters are not supporting the Liberals en masse: although the Liberals still lead among non-francophone voters with 62% to just 20% for the CAQ, that result marks a fairly staggering loss for a party that normally has a monopoly on native English speakers, which comprise 10% of the Québécois electorate.

So on Sunday night, it was thought that PQ leader Pauline Marois (pictured above, second to right) and CAQ leader François Legault (pictured above, far left), as well as spokeswoman for the far-left Québec solidaire, Françoise David (pictured above, far right) would all target Charest — on his record on tuition fees, on a damaging and ongoing corruption inquiry, on his controversial plan to develop northern Québec.

That quite didn’t happen, as Marois and Legault and David targeted one another — and an aggressive Charest went on the offensive against both Maoris and Legault.  For example, he went directly at Marois and Legault for supporting cuts in the PQ-led administration of the 1990s (Legault is a former PQ minister), he attached the PQ for its past corruption scandals and he went directly on the attack on the issue of sovereignty:

Mr. Charest charged that the PQ’s main objective will be to achieve sovereignty and hold a referendum “as quickly as possible. She has set up a committee to achieve it,” he warned.

Tonight, Charest will face off in a one-on-one debate against Marois.  Tuesday night will feature Charest and Legault, while Wednesday night will feature Marois and Legault.

The French-language La Presse‘s recap and the English-language Montréal Gazette‘s recap largely concurred:

And at times, a smiling, smug-looking Charest appeared happy to stay behind his podium out of the limelight and watch Legault fling mud with Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois, in what was a lively first campaign debate where the leaders did venture beyond their media lines.

In fact it was captivating television riddled with allegations of who is the most corrupt, who can’t tote up a balance sheet and who is wasting time talking about referendums…

“I evolved like many other Quebecers watching tonight,” Legault said at one point after Marois blasted him for renouncing sovereignty and forming his new party. “You want to live in denial, that’s your problem.”

Later, in an exchange over who had a worse record over adding more family doctors to the system, Legault flung at her: “Your plan is wishful thinking. You lack courage.”

“You can spare me lessons on courage,” Marois snapped.

Commentators argued that David may have had the best night by simply being present on the stage — she is running hard against the PQ’s Nicolas Girard in the Gouin district in Montréal.

Photo credit to Christinne Muschi of Reuters.

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