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Who is François Legault, Quebec's next premier?

Quebec’s new premier began his political career as a prominent sovereignist before turning towards nationalism and a tepid embrace of Canada.

Once heir-apparent to the sovereignist movement, Legault now tepidly embraces Canada

François Legault formed the Coalition Avenir Québec in 2011 as a nationalist third-way to the federalist Liberals and the sovereigntist Parti Québécois. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

François Legault's victory in the Quebec election is the culmination of a winding political journey that began in the sovereigntist camp before turning toward a business-friendly nationalism.

Legault's centre-right party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, was projected by CBC News to win enough seats to form a majority government.

It is the first time since the Union Nationale lost in 1970 that neither the federalist Liberals nor the sovereigntist Parti Québécois have held power in Quebec.

Legault formed the CAQ in 2011, after turning his back on sovereignty and his original political home, the Parti Québécois.

The accountant and entrepreneur had been a high-profile cabinet minister in the PQ governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, including stints at the helm of both education and health care.

Legault took three stabs at the PQ leadership and was an important voice during its years in opposition. At one point, he was considered the party's No. 2 man.

But he began publicly expressing doubts about sovereignty in 2008, wondering if it wasn't distracting Quebecers from dealing with more pressing social issues. He quit politics the following year.

Two years later, in 2011, he and business executive Charles Sirois announced the formation of a new political party that would represent a "third way" between federalism and sovereignty, the Coalition Avenir Québec.

The CAQ soon merged with the remnants of the conservative, populist party once led by Mario Dumont, Action démocratique du Québec.

The ADQ was known for its hardline stance against accommodating minorities and served briefly as Official Opposition, from 2007-08.

Only a handful of members of that original ADQ crowd — Éric Caire, François Bonnardel, Marc Picard — remain with the CAQ.

Slow and steady

The CAQ achieved a modest amount of success in its first two elections, picking up 19 seats in 2012 and 22 in 2014.

In its early days, the party's popularity came mainly from blasting the Liberals on ethical issues, promising to trim bureaucracy and support small businesses.

But other than Legault, the party had few experienced politicians in its ranks, and Quebecers were reluctant to consider the CAQ as a potential governing party.

However, its fortunes began to improve midway through the Liberal mandate that came to an end Monday night.

That began with the CAQ commitment in 2016 to keep Quebec in Canada.

Legault was a high-profile cabinet minister in the PQ governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The inclusion of that vow as the first article in the CAQ's constitution helped blunt a common Liberal attack line — that Legault is a "closet separatist." Legault's rebuttal: the CAQ is a "nationalist" party.

Legault also made health and education rallying issues for the party.

As the Liberals cut services to balance the budget in the first two years of their mandate, he drafted policies to appeal to young families (by reducing school taxes) and the elderly (by improving conditions in seniors' residences).

In the meantime, the PQ struggled to keep itself relevant amid a long-term decline in support for sovereignty.

A pledge by PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée not to hold a referendum until 2022 did little to restore the party's fortunes.

After winning a byelection in a Liberal stronghold last year, Legault's party began to come first in most opinion polls — a lead it held more or less steadily until election day.

Accountant's touch

Legault is not an overly ideological politician. Before entering politics, he was a chartered accountant and the co-founder of a successful budget airline, Air Transat.

He sometimes boasts of taking an accountant's approach to politics.   

His party's biggest source of intellectual inspiration comes not from Quebec's earlier conservative-nationalist movements, but rather from Lucien Bouchard's 2005 manifesto Pour un Québec lucide.

The CAQ achieved a modest amount of success in its first two elections, picking up 19 seats in 2012 and 22 in 2014. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

In the manifesto, the former PQ premier expressed frustrations at the state of Quebec politics, dominated as it was by sovereignist-federalist debates on the one hand and statist policies on the other.

The CAQ can be seen, in many ways, as a realization of Bouchard's manifesto.

More recently, though, Legault has added immigration and identity issues to the CAQ's political repertoire.

He has proposed reducing immigration levels, despite objections from many within the business community.

During the campaign he said he was worried more immigration would threaten the future of the French language in Quebec.

He's mused, too, about expelling newcomers who don't learn French within three years, though he later acknowledged the province doesn't have the power to do so.

And like his ADQ predecessors, he favours an inflexible approach to religious accommodations.

Whether he'll maintain these positions in power is another question. Many in Quebec still see him as a chameleon, ready to change colours when his political survival is at stake.

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