It's a unique campaign message: A man who aspires to be premier of Quebec has compared the province's young people, unfavorably, to Asian kids.

François Legault says he doesn't regret suggesting this week that young Quebecers are more interested in living "the good life" and could learn a thing or two from their harder-working Asian counterparts.

In fact, Legault dug in his heels Tuesday.

"I'm sticking to it," he told reporters. "Right now in Quebec, we don't value education and effort as much as we should."

The leader of the new Coalition party first waded into the subject during a chat with an 85-year-old man during a campaign stop a day earlier. The man had lamented the work ethic of today's youth, and Legault eagerly responded.

Legault said it was the opposite in Asia where, he said, parents want their kids to become engineers and actually need to stop them from studying at night because they nearly work themselves sick. He said if people in Asia keep working so hard while young Quebecers just want "the good life," our society is in trouble.

Legault further explained his remarks Tuesday.

"If you have kids they'll tell you [the Asian students] are always first in class. One of my sons was telling me, 'Yes, but they have no life,"' Legault told reporters today.

"There's maybe an extreme there but, here, in some cases we're a little bit at the other extreme."

He said he doesn't blame young Quebecers at all. He said he blames older Quebecers, and parents, for not transmitting the values of hard work to youth.

Legault's remarks were ridiculed by his opponents, and they quickly became an object of online scorn. The French phrase for "the good life," la belle vie, became a trending topic on Twitter.

A paper by economist Valerie Ramey at the University of California at San Diego last year delved into the sensitive issue of study habits by ethnicity in the United States.

Using federal statistics from the American Time Use Survey, she concluded that Asian-American high school students averaged 13 hours of study per week over the entire calendar year — compared with 5.5 hours for white students, and even less for other students.

The comments from Legault were politically charged.

Students at universities and colleges are voting this week on whether to end six-month strikes; the turn of phrase, "la belle vie," has become famous as the term used by a tabloid columnist to deride protesters at the height of the unrest last spring.

The tuition debate has also featured questions about productivity, and whether higher fees might steer students away from social studies into the hard sciences. Legault appeared to be touching on all these themes, at a particularly sensitive moment.

Opponents said he's simply peddling junk populism.

Jean Charest, the Liberal premier, called it a symptom of a greater problem with Legault's party. He accused it of pandering to stereotypes, without offering substantive policies.

"It's frankly well beneath what we would expect from a person in public life," Charest told reporters. "Quebecers are a working people. We are workers. We do very great things and the young people also."

He compared the remark to what he called Legault's simplistic take on Quebec's CEGEP system — the two-year pre-university system — which the Coalition leader once famously dismissed as a great place to learn to smoke dope.

Three parties leading

Legault's new Coalition party is now involved in a three-way election race.

Recent polls placed the Parti Québécois in the lead, while the governing Liberals were in serious danger because of poor support among francophones, who form the bulk of voters in the vast majority of Quebec ridings.

The Liberals are apparently even in trouble in Charest's riding. An old foe of Charest's is now thinking of challenging him in his riding. Marc Bellemare says he might run as an Independent in Sherbrooke, which Charest has represented in the legislature since 1998.