Montreal·Analysis

François Legault endorsed a book by a hardline conservative. Here's why that matters

A common knock against Quebec Premier François Legault is that he is a politician without an ideology. His recent reading list suggests otherwise.

The premier’s summer reading list included a book that takes swipes at minority groups

Quebec Premier François Legault took to his social media last weekend to endorse the latest book by Mathieu Bock-Côté, L'empire du politiquement correct (The empire of political correctness). (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

A common knock against Quebec Premier François Legault is that he is a politician without an ideology.

His critics accuse him of governing by polls. His convictions, they say, don't run deeper than the roots of a tumbleweed.

In the eyes of his supporters, this is seen as an asset. He's a businessman, they counter. His only allegiance is to the most practical solution available.

It's that lack of deeply rooted ideology that allowed him to rally disaffected federalists and sovereigntists. His party — the Coalition Avenir Québec — likes to emphasize the coalition part of its name.  

Last weekend, though, Legault revealed what he's been up to on his summer vacation. 

And along with catching up on the second season of Big Little Lies (the first season of which was directed by Quebec's own Jean-Marc Vallée), he appears to have spent some time filling in that ideological void.

He took to his social media channels to endorse not only Meryl Streep's performance, but also the latest book by Mathieu Bock-Côté, L'empire du politiquement correct (The empire of political correctness).

Paraphrasing a line from the book's penultimate chapter, Legault wrote "all well-organized societies need two poles: progressivism and conservatism."

To this Legault added his own thoughts, which closely mirror the argument of the book: "Unfortunately, the self-righteous  and certain media in our current society condemn conservatism. They condemn, among other things, the identity question and nationalism. This situation feeds the populist revolt, as we saw with Trump. Happily, in Quebec, we have managed to make space again for nationalism."

So what's behind the brand of conservative nationalism that the premier just endorsed?

Modernity and the future of the nation

To much of the province, Bock-Côté needs no introduction.

He pens a regular column in the largest circulation newspaper in Quebec, the Journal de Montreal, hosts a podcast and is a frequent guest on televised political panels.

But even if you've never heard of him, the motif of L'empire du politiquement correct will be familiar: conservative intellectual complains of censorship.

Mathieu Bock-Côté pens a regular column in the Journal de Montreal. His book, l'Empire du politiquement correct was published in April 2019. (Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)

Bock-Côté, in particular, bemoans the influence of what he calls "the left," an amorphous category that he uses in the same way American conservatives use the term "liberal."

The problem with the left, in his view, is its militant embrace of difference and diversity. He believes minority groups have radicalized and create a chilling effect by calling out opinions that don't align with their own.

But the more fundamental problem, for Bock-Côté, is that by demanding inclusion in political debates, minority groups are undermining the possibility of a truly collective identity.

They do so, Bock-Côté says, by focusing solely on the misdeeds of Western civilization, rupturing "our" once firm attachment to the past.

The nation is thus reduced to a mere collection of laws, stripped of the cultural values that make it a unique and a vital source of meaning for citizens, who would otherwise be lost in a rapidly modernizing world.

The threat of minority groups 

He builds his argument by offering dismissive comments about various minority causes, which he maintains have been emboldened by the left. 

At one point he refers to the transgender rights movement as "crazy" (loufoque) and claims "the figure of the queer [sic] … best incarnates this modernity that's in a tailspin."

The anti-racism movement, he believes, has promoted something called "anti-white racism," which in turn encourages "the normalization of hatred against Whites [sic]."

Bock-Côté doesn't see racial activism in the U.S. as an attempt to include long-marginalized voices into the country's historical narrative.

In this Sept. 16, 2017 file photo, State Police keep a small group of Confederate protesters separated from counter demonstrators in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Rather, by tearing down "with destructive fury" statues of Confederate generals, this activism is emblematic of the current disavowal of history that makes national unity impossible.

"There was a time when restoring the peace didn't presuppose the eradication of the defeated," he writes, adding that the Civil War "was not about slavery but the unity of the country."

What goes unmentioned is that the vast majority of Confederate statues in the U.S. were erected during the 20th century as part of the segregationist regime that replaced slavery.

Bock-Côté also repeatedly expresses concern about what "massive immigration" is doing to national identity. He's worried that more established minority groups are turning newcomers against the benefits of Western civilization. 

At other points in the book there is a defense of illiberal democracies; the suggestion that fact-checkers at mainstream media outlets form a cabal of sorts; and a footnote about Madonna and the "abolition of the self."

The modern world, Bock-Côté writes with no hint of irony, is "morally asphyxiating" young men and women. His book is meant as a guide for building a conservative movement able to save them. 

Who cares what Legault is reading?

Legault has never been shy about calling himself a nationalist. Until recently this seemed mainly to be a convenient way of avoiding either the federalist or sovereigntist label.

But as he nears the one-year mark of his premiership, Legault is now offering more clues about exactly what kind of nationalist he is.

There is a form of nationalism, sometimes called constitutional patriotism, that simply asks citizens to take pride in their institutions, such as representative democracy or the rule of law.

The requirements are meant to be low in order to make belonging as inclusive as possible.

But that's not enough for nationalists like Bock-Côté. A nation is more than just laws; it requires a common culture, language and values.

People attend a demonstration to protest against the Quebec government's Bill 21 in Montreal, June 17, 2019. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Legault is placing himself in this second camp, where the requirements of belonging are higher.

His government's secularism law — which bars public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work — was, after all, framed as a way to protect Quebec's largely white, Francophone majority.

"In Quebec, this is how we live," Legault said when the secularism bill was tabled, a phrase that's since become a slogan for the province's cultural nationalists.

But in the wake of his first year in office, minorities in Quebec are wondering how exactly their own identities fit within Legault's vision of how people in the province should live.

The premier just gave them an answer, by endorsing a book that says the nation is threatened when minority groups ask for political recognition.

Those who joined Legault's coalition for mere practical reasons will now have to ask themselves if they too endorse the ideology their leader is adopting.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.