Montreal·Profile

Jean-François Lisée, the Parti Québécois ideas man, takes the helm

Jean-François Lisée spent years as a backroom adviser to some of the Parti Québécois's ​legendary leaders. Later he shared them more widely, as a prolific author and prominent cabinet minister. Lisée's ideas will now get their grandest platform yet, as he takes over the PQ.

How a backroom adviser became the PQ's new leader

Jean-François Lisée has a reputation for being an ideas man, but he's unafraid to do what needs to be done to advance his political ambitions. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Jean-François Lisée spent years sharing his ideas as a backroom adviser to some of the Parti Québécois's ​most iconic leaders.

He shared them more widely, later, as a prolific author, ubiquitous social critic and prominent cabinet minister. Lisée's ideas will now get their grandest platform yet as he takes the helm of the PQ.

His win Friday night was something of a surprise. Alexandre Cloutier was considered the establishment favourite and for months led the polls.

But as voting day approached, Lisée waged a merciless campaign against his rival. He attacked Cloutier for wishing Muslims a Happy Eid — a violation of Quebec's ethos of secularism, Lisée charged.   

Lisée jokes around with 'Joe Debt' during the 2014 provincial election campaign. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Then, as the two clashed over identity issues, he attempted to link Cloutier to controversial imam Adil Charkaoui. 

Cloutier became the target of a surge of online hate, which prompted him to alert provincial police. Lisée struck a more civil tone afterward, but the damage was done.

Backroom operator

Lisée has always fashioned himself an ideas man.

After picking up a law degree from the University of Quebec in Montreal, he worked for many years as a journalist. He won a Governor General's Award in 1990 for a book of essays about Quebec's relationship with the U.S.

Lisée became a speech writer and adviser to PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau in the run-up to the 1995 referendum. He reportedly wrote the question that appeared on the ballot, which was either brilliant or deliberately confusing, depending on your political allegiance.

He stayed on after the referendum, working under Lucien Bouchard. In the corridors of power, Lisée earned a reputation as a cunning strategist.

His interpersonal skills, though, were less well received. Ministers often complained he operated behind their backs. 

After leaving politics in 1999, he took up a position at the University of Montreal and began publishing books at a breakneck rate. He also appeared on multiple current affairs shows and penned columns for L'actualité.

Lisée served as minister of international relations in Pauline Marois's short-lived government. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Return to politics

Few were surprised when, in 2012, Lisée left his university post to return to politics, this time as a candidate. 

His ambitions were obvious to many. Lisée didn't fit the profile of a quiet but loyal backbencher. 

"His destiny will be higher than that," former premier Bernard Landry told La Presse at the time. 

Pauline Marois made Lisée minister of international relations in her short-lived minority government. But he was best remembered for helping to advocate for the party's fractious secularism charter, which sought to impose strict limits on religious clothing in public institutions. 

After the PQ's defeat in 2014, Lisée wrote a book about his time in office, claiming he actually opposed the charter and was ready to vote against it. 

But his campaign for the leadership took up many of the charter's most controversial positions. His proposal to ban the burka in public, in fact, takes it further.

"I'm seeing that there are three enormous challenges for us Quebecers, and the rest of the planet, in the 21st century," Lisée told CBC's Quebec AM last month.

"The first is global warming. The second is inequality and the third is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism."

Between 1994 and 1999, Lisée served as a counsellor to PQ premiers Bouchard and Parizeau. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Lisée gambit

Notably absent from this list is sovereignty, or federalism for that matter. Lisée campaigned on the promise to shelve talk of a referendum on independence until 2022, that is, until the second term of a PQ government. (The next provincial election is scheduled for 2018.)

Referendum talk makes the party easy prey for the Liberals, Lisée argued during his campaign, and there can be no sovereignty if the PQ is perpetually in opposition.

That's where they've been since 2003, save the Marois interregnum.

Getting PQ members to put aside talk of sovereignty is no mean feat. But the party seems willing, at least for the moment, to play along with Lisée's gambit.

His part of the bargain now is to deliver the next election. It's not yet clear how he plans to do that, but you can be sure Lisée will have an idea.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.