Montreal·Analysis

François Legault's revolutionary politics of the status quo

There was fleeting speculation about whether a campaign marred by negativity and divisiveness would hurt the Coalition Avenir Québec leader on election day. The answer voters delivered on Monday was a resounding no.

What the CAQ's decisive win in Monday's election says about what voters want

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault will stay on as the province's premier. His party faces challenges that include climate change, the cost of living and a battered health-care system. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

In the end, what changed was that nothing changed. The Coalition Avenir Québec, the conservative, nationalist party that has guided Quebec for the past four years, coasted to another majority government, as just about every pollster, pundit and amateur political scientist had been predicting for months.

It took the television networks just 11 minutes after polls closed to project that François Legault would once again lead a majority government, this time by an even more impressive margin than his historic victory in 2018.

And this, despite Legault having run what was, by most accounts, the worst campaign of the leaders of the five major parties.

He was quarrelsome with journalists; he looked by turns angry or annoyed during the debates, and he had to apologize twice for inflammatory comments about minority groups.

In the first instance, he associated immigration with violence and extremism when trying to spell out Quebec values. In the second, he claimed he had "resolved" the racism problem at the Joliette, Que., hospital where an Atikamekw woman, Joyce Echaquan, died amid a torrent of abuse.

WATCH | François Legault addresses Quebecers after election win:

Legault celebrates decisive win in victory speech

2 months ago
Duration 0:53
François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec won its second majority government on Monday. The premier says he’ll improve Quebec’s education network, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen Quebec’s economy.

Legault also had to publicly scold his immigration minister, Jean Boulet, when it was revealed Boulet had said during a debate that 80 per cent of newcomers to the province don't bother finding work or learning French — both claims that are verifiably false.

On the same day, however, Legault said it would a "bit suicidal" for Quebec to increase its immigration levels, insisting — as he has done for months — that accepting more immigrants entails a threat to the French language. (In fact, 81 per cent of immigrants in Quebec speak French, according to Statistics Canada.)   

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During the final days of the campaign, newspapers and social media in Quebec saw dozens of immigrants testify, in French, about what drew them to Quebec, about the jobs they worked, about what they had contributed to the province.

In one of his final campaign stops, Legault grumbled about the "analysts" who accused him of being racist. He boasted that he alone had the courage to speak about Quebec values but then declined to specify what those values are — saying, "You know what happens when I try to do that."

There was speculation, fleeting though it was, about whether this negativity, this divisiveness, would hurt him on election day. 

The answer voters delivered on Monday was a resounding no. Legault's growing number of supporters endorsed, instead, his politics of the status quo. 

This is a politics of more tax cuts aimed at the broad middle class and of docile environmental policies, of investments in elder care and the odd quarrel with Ottawa.

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade hugs her daughter, Clara, after speaking to supporters after the results in the provincial election at the PLQ headquarters, in Montreal, Monday, Oct. 3, 2022.
Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade hugs her daughter Clara, after speaking to supporters at the PLQ headquarters on election night, Oct. 3, 2022. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

And, perhaps above all, it is a politics of defensiveness against the demands that Quebec do more to address systemic racism, do more to make immigrants feel welcome, do more to define its nationalism in pluralistic terms. 

Legault co-founded the CAQ in 2011 as an attempt to rally allies across the political divide. Somewhere along the way, his coalition turned into a political movement to capitalize on long-simmering anxieties about Quebec's identity.

That movement is now entrenched as part of the establishment.

The dogs that didn't bark

When the campaign began in August, there were expectations it would consolidate Quebec's transition away from a party system defined by federalism and sovereignty.

The CAQ's victory in 2018 was, after all, the first time in 50 years that neither the Liberals nor the Parti Québécois had been elected to power.

But Québec Solidaire, the progressive party that had hoped to emerge as the alternative to the CAQ, vowing urgent action on climate change, only mustered 15 per cent of the vote on Monday. That's about how it fared last time. It finished the race with 11 seats — one more than in 2018.

The upstart Conservative Party of Quebec, fuelled by a libertarian and occasionally conspiratorial fervour, claimed 13 per cent of the vote, just a point or two less than the other opposition parties, but ended up with no seats at all.

WATCH | Pollster Christian Bourque on the CAQ's particular form of Quebec nationalism:

CAQ's nationalist agenda key to electoral success, says pollster

2 months ago
Duration 6:41
The Coalition Avenir Québec has found a 'sweet' spot of Quebec nationalism, but leader François Legault will likely focus on economic issues in his second term, says Christian Bourque, executive vice-president of the market research and polling company Leger.

Support for the two legacy parties proved stubborn, despite many predicting their demise.   

The Liberals, thanks to a handful of Anglo-heavy ridings in Montreal, held onto Official Opposition status, with just over 14 per cent of the vote.

And the PQ yet again fooled the electoral Grim Reaper, salvaging three seats while earning about the same share of the popular vote as the Liberals. 

In short, if the Quebec electorate is comfortable with Legault's conservative nationalism, it is equally undecided about what the ideological alternative ought to be.

The similar outcomes vote-wise, but wildly dissimilar outcomes seat-wise, is almost certain to spur calls for electoral reform. 

Legault, who had once been an advocate of updating the first-past-the-post system, belittled calls for reform during the campaign.

Surveying Quebec political landscape Tuesday morning, there is not much he would want to change.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at jonathan.montpetit@cbc.ca.

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