Quebec election debate: Philippe Couillard takes a hit

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard was leading in the polls going into Thursday's debate, but he walked out of the night wounded, after taking hits from all sides.

Liberal leader on the defensive over language rights, accusations of corruption in final debate

Philippe Couillard says his campaign is going well, and that's why he was the target of so many attacks in Thursday night's debate. (TVA)

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard was leading in the polls going into Thursday's election debate, but he walked out of the night wounded, after taking hits from all sides.

One of the biggest blows came from Quebec Solidaire co-spokeswoman Francoise David, who cornered Couillard on French-language rights.

"I don't think you realize the extent that anglicization has invaded the workforce. In particular, in Montreal and in the Outaouais​," David said.

"Do you know that there are big hotels, where the bosses want to require the cooks to speak English with the clientele? They don't hire the person if they don't speak English."

Couillard said his party believes the Charter of the French Language (Law 101) should be applied in full force in small and medium businesses.

He acknowledged that protecting the French language is important, but added that Quebecers live in a world where knowing another language is increasingly indispensable.

After the debate, Couillard said he wasn't surprised to be targeted by the other candidates.

"I could answer mud with mud, but this is not the way I like to do politics," he said. "It’s not surprising that because this campaign is going well, I was a common target."

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois admitted to journalists afterwards that she didn't mind seeing Couillard put on the defensive.

“It was a very nice situation for me," she told reporters with a smile. "[Couillard] pretends that he can be premier … so he has to prove that. So that was normal for us to attack him."

Corruption allegations

Early on in the debate, Marois and Couillard were forced to defend themselves and their parties against allegations of corruption and suspicious dealings.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault took a shot at Couillard for what he said was the "elephant in the room" — the Liberal leader's connections with Arthur Porter, who is accused of being at the heart of a fraud scandal involving the $1.3-billion MUHC superhospital project in Montreal.

Couillard denied ever having business dealings with Porter. He said that in hindsight, he's relieved their plans for a company never got off the ground. 

The Parti Québécois leader also took heat for a meeting between anti-corruption investigators and two senior PQ members that took place in February. Marois continued to defend her party's integrity, saying a meeting with investigators is not the same thing as the search raids carried out at Liberal Party offices in the summer of 2013.

Legault, who is in third place according to the latest polls, grilled Marois on her governance methods, accusing her of making 50 patronage appointments over one and a half years.

François Legault and Pauline Marois face off in a debate that came with its fair share of yelling matches. (TVA)

Marois shot back that all of her cabinet members were chosen for their skills, not their connections.

As election day draws near, a sense of growing impatience among the leaders is becoming increasingly apparent.

The one-on-one debate format devolved into yelling matches several times, with the moderator at one point threatening to cut off Marois's microphone if she didn't stop interrupting her opponents.

Legault says he's created jobs

The tone of the discussion calmed down during the second half of the two-hour debate, as the leaders faced off on the economy and taxes.

Québec Solidaire co-spokeswoman David continued to push for the redistribution of wealth among Quebecers. 

The four main parties in the race were represented at Thursday's debate by, from the left, Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, Parti Québecois Leader Pauline Marois, and Françoise David of Québec Solidaire. (TVA)

When the moderator asked her which social services she would cut, David shook her head in shock, saying she would never cut social programs. Instead, David said she would find new sources of revenue.

Legault, who co-founded Air Transat, hammered home his business approach throughout the debate. 

In one of the more intense moments of the debate, Legault schooled Marois on job creation.

"The only person here who’s created work here is me. I founded Air Transat. I’ve created jobs. the economy impassions me," he said.

​Marois says Quebecers need to stand up

In last week's debate, Marois was cornered on the referendum question, refusing to give a straight yes or no answer and instead opting for her standard reply: Quebec will have a referendum if Quebecers want one. 

This time around, Marois was ready for the question. 

She defended her party's pro-separatist stance — “Quebecers need to stand up, we need to defend our own interests” — while also blaming Couillard for derailing the campaign and focusing on the referendum question to gain votes. 

But Couillard said the population deserves to know that the "top priority" of the PQ is independence.

One of the zingers of the night went to Legault, who said the PQ isn't in tune with what Quebecers really want.

"I think you’re not listening to the population. The population doesn’t want [a referendum], and honestly, you should change the slogan on your bus — instead of “determiné” it should be "déconnecté."

On the question of sovereignty, David sided with Marois, even offering some advice by telling Marois that if she wants a referendum, she needs to find a way to inspire Quebecers and help them dream.

Thursday night's event, broadcast on TVA, LCN and Argent, was the final debate before voters go to the polls on April 7.