In last-chance debate, François Legault doubles down on immigration, identity
CAQ leader improved performance but drew on dangerous currents to buttress collapsing support
With his political career on the line, François Legault, leader of the free-falling Coalition Avenir Québec, delivered his most convincing debate performance of the campaign Thursday night.
He did so by sowing further confusion about his controversial immigration policy and offering a populist defence of his position on religious neutrality.
Legault was more passionate and more composed than he was in the first two debates.
"Tonight I spoke to you with heart," he said in his closing statement.
He also frequently mentioned his high-profile candidates, including Christian Dubé, a former executive at Quebec's pension fund manager, and Sonia Le Bel, a one-time anti-corruption prosecutor.
Talking about the strength of his team seemed engineered to pull his campaign out of the death spiral it's been in since the first debate.
Epic name drop
When Legault entered the Radio-Canada studios last week for that initial televised confrontation with his rivals, he had been on the defensive for several days over the details of his immigration policy.
It's always been clear that he wants to cut immigration levels by more than 20 per cent. But less clear is how he plans to withhold a provincial immigration document, the Quebec selection certificate, from newcomers who fail to pass a French test within three years of settling in Quebec.
In that debate, Legault spoke openly of "expelling" immigrants who failed the tests, which Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard ridiculed.
Legault then stumbled in the days afterward as he was asked to explain the basics of the Canadian immigration system, and offered evolving answers about what would happen to those who didn't pass the tests.
A milquetoast performance in Monday's English debate did nothing to help his cause.
A series of polls released in recent days confirmed that Legault's levels of support were dropping fast. Once the front-runner, projected to win a majority, some polls now have him trailing in the popular vote — in minority territory, at best.
Within the CAQ camp, the diagnosis appears to be that not only was Legault being overly defensive, but that he was taking up too much space on the campaign trail, that his popularity wasn't strong enough to carry the party to victory.
So the leader cooled his heels for a few days, disappearing from sight Wednesday, and when the gate opened Thursday, he apologized for nothing, dropping names and curricula vitae every chance he had.
He mentioned nine CAQ candidates in his closing statement alone.
Style over substance
If Legault was different in style, the substance was much the same.
He has desperately attempted to discuss any subject other than immigration and identity when he's been questioned by journalists in recent days. In the debate's one-on-exchanges, though, he met these issues head-on.
Legault repeated old arguments with newfound conviction, and despite the uncertainty they have caused his campaign to date.
During a key exchange on his immigration plan, Legault insisted he would not expel immigrants (a power the province doesn't have, anyway). Even the moderator, TVA host Pierre Bruneau, seemed confused.
"So you changed your mind?" he asked Legault.
"No. The only people we want to expel are the Liberal Party," Legault replied.
On the related theme of protecting Quebec's identity, the CAQ leader challenged Couillard to explain why he would permit a police officer to wear a hijab, which Legault is against.
"A society has to respect its minorities," Couillard said.
"You're not listening to the majority of Quebecers" who are opposed to authority figures wearing religious symbols, Legault insisted.
Throughout the debate, Couillard sought to counter Legault's attacks by offering up rosy descriptions on everything in Quebec society from the health of the French language to the light-rail network under construction in Montreal.
The CAQ's decline over the past week has not been accompanied by surge in support for the Liberals. Couillard appears to be banking on the current wave of second-guessing about Legault's credibility to keep him in power.
His performance on Thursday was designed to convince Quebecers their hard-won gains of recent years, modest though they may be, would be in jeopardy without a Liberal government.
"We're in a better position today than we were yesterday," Couillard said at the end of the debate.
But Couillard's rope-a-dope strategy has only been partially been executed. The CAQ, as George Foreman was in the late rounds against Muhammad Ali, appears exhausted, yet still standing and ready to fight.
If Couillard is to win he needs to land a series of punches of his own, otherwise this bout will end in a stalemate on Oct. 1.
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