Alexandre Cloutier says SQ monitoring his PQ leadership campaign

The front-runner in the Parti Québécois leadership race says his campaign is being monitored by provincial police after being targeted by an outburst of "violent insults" on social media, sparked by comments made by his closest rival.

Cloutier says he became target of 'violent insults' after rival linked him to controversial activist

Alexandre Cloutier says he has been the target of 'violent insults' on social medai after recent comments by Jean-François Lisée. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The front-runner in the Parti Québécois leadership race says police are monitoring his campaign after comments made by his closest rival sparked "violent insults" on social media.

Alexandre Cloutier, who polls suggest is leading the race, has sparred repeatedly in recent days with Jean-François Lisée over identity and immigration issues.

Their sparring reached a fever pitch on Friday, when Lisée wrote on both Twitter and Facebook that Cloutier enjoyed the support of controversial Montreal imam and Islamic activist Adil Charkaoui.

That prompted a series of insults and "hateful comments" directed at Cloutier, he told reporters at a news conference on Saturday. 

Cloutier said the Sûreté du Québec is monitoring social media and has asked to be informed of his movements. Quebec provincial police declined to comment on the issue, citing their privacy policy. 

"In 10 years of political and parliamentary life, it represents the harshest and most ill-founded attack directed my way," Cloutier said of being linked to Charkaoui.

"I am profoundly saddened that it came from a colleague from my own political party." 

Jean-François Lisée denounced the violent comments directed at Cloutier. (Canadian Press)

Debating secularism

Shortly after Cloutier's news conference, Lisée denounced the threats directed at his opponent.

Lisée also removed the two social media posts, but has so far refused to apologize for his comments, despite having been called on to do so by Cloutier.

The confrontation brings to a head a series of escalating exchanges between the two leadership candidates. They clashed at a debate earlier in the week while discussing the thorny issue of secularism. 

During the debate Cloutier accused Lisée of wanting to police religious clothing. Lisée replied that Cloutier was "inventing" his policy positions.   

Lisée then called on Thursday for a "discussion" about the merits of banning the burka in Quebec. This last proposal brought a swift rebuke from Cloutier's camp.

Responding to those criticisms, Lisée circulated a Facebook post on Friday from the Collectif québécois contre l'islamophobie, an anti-Islamophobia group headed by Charkaoui.

"Cloutier argues for openness and renewal while Lisée descends into an identity debate and the legacy of Drainville's Islamophobic charter," the group said in a post Wednesday, referring to the secular charter tabled in 2013 by then democratic institutions minister Bernard Drainville.

Pointing to that post, Lisée wrote on social media: "Adil Charkaoui publicly supporting Alex, was that planned?"   

During his news conference on Saturday, Cloutier denied receiving Charkaoui's support or having ever met him. He described Charkaoui as a "radical imam suspected of having participated in the radicalization of dozens of students at Collège de Maisonneuve." 

Charkaoui himself has denied supporting Cloutier's campaign.

Sylvain Gaudreault repeated his call for calm among the candidates on Friday. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

A call for calm

The increasingly heated leadership race has begun to alarm party insiders, who worry it will leave the party fragmented and unable to rally against the Liberal government when a leader is finally chosen on Oct. 7.  

Interim leader Sylvain Gaudreault has been at pains to rein in the attacks the four candidates have directed at each other.

A report surfaced earlier this week that Gaudreault met with leadership candidate Martine Ouellet, who has been polling third behind Lisée and Cloutier, to ask her to tone down her critiques of her campaign rivals.  

On Friday, Gaudreault publicly called on the candidates to soften their rhetoric. 

"The Parti Québécois leadership race is an extraordinary moment for exchanging ideas and positions about the future of Quebec," he wrote in a Facebook post. 

"At the same time, I'd like to recall that it's important to conduct these debates with calmness, serenity, respect and in a spirit of collegiality and unity."

With files from Radio-Canada