Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault

Some of the CAQ's hard-won ridings will be key battlegrounds this election as the Parti Quebecois tries to lure away voters needed to secure its majority.
Francois Legault, leader of the CAQ, will try and keep the focus on the economy throughout the election campaign. (Clement Allard/ Canadian Press)

The third-place finish of the Coalition Avenir Québec in the 2012 election may have seemed a good showing for a newly formed party trying to gain a foothold in a largely two-sided political battle.

But for the party’s leader, former PQ minister Francois Legault, the fight is far from over. Some of the 18 hard-won ridings secured by the CAQ in 2012 will be key battlegrounds this election as the Parti Quebecois tries to lure away voters need to secure its majority.

Legault's own riding of L'Assomption, which he won by a little more than 1,100 votes of the 40,600 cast, will not be a sure thing.

Centre-right and moderately nationalist, the CAQ will again eye federalist and sovereignist voters, voters who are disillusioned with the Liberals and Parti Québécois, to try to make gains in the polls.

It will do so, once again, by presenting itself as a compromise between the two on polarizing issues such as the secular charter and Bill 14.

A 'middle ground'

In a minority environment, the CAQ's 18 seats proved powerful in several high-profile issues before the national assembly. Legault firmly refused to support the PQ's revised language legislation, Bill 14, because of new demands it would place on small businesses.

The bill died out as the PQ shifted its focus to its secular charter. 

The CAQ also refused to throw its support behind the charter as proposed, pitching a less restrictive version. 

That “Charter light” idea would limit the ban on religious symbols to public employees in positions of authority such as judges, teachers, principals and police.

“I’m proposing a compromise in order to put that aside and work on subjects that are more important,” Legault told CBC in October.

“In the 33 days of the campaign, I’m convinced that we won’t talk for 33 days about the charter. We have to talk about the economy.”

Coalition Avenir Québec leader Francois Legault chats with CAQ candidates at an election stop in Nicolet during the 2012 election campaign. (Graham Hughes / Canadian Press)
 Legault has long pointed to the PQ’s economic policy and its inability to finance the province’s social programs as evidence that Quebec needs to move in a new direction.

The former PQ cabinet minister and businessman generated months of media buzz when he launched the CAQ in 2011 and merged with the now-defunct Action démocratique du Québec.

He brought with him some high-profile candidates, including anti-corruption crusader and former Montreal police chief, Jacques Duchesneau, business leader Christian Dubé and a handful of ex-PQ and ADQ MNAs.

Focus on economy before sovereignty 

Legault wants to shelve the sovereignty debate for least a decade to focus on economic prosperity.

“We have to put aside the battle between federalist and sovereignist, at least for 10 or 15 years, because we have to focus on the economy,” he said again in October.

“We have to get rid of equalization payments from the rest of Canada. It’s a question of being proud of what we are so we really have to change things. “

Legault outlines the loss of jobs in the province while questioning the government in September 2013. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Articulate, bilingual and affable, Legault, 55, has proven to be a popular leader in the polls and is frequently sought out as an economic analyst in the public sphere.

But Quebec political observers say distinctions between the CAQ’s platform and Quebec’s right-of-centre Liberal Party policies are mostly shades of the same colour.

Legault supported the Liberals’ controversial tuition fee increases, wants to trim bureaucracy in health and social services, to pay down Quebec’s crippling debt and to promote the French language and culture.

Business and political experience

As a self-made multimillionaire who helped found Air Transat, Legault espouses a political platform committed to developing an entrepreneurial economy.

He wants to see Quebec become a hotbed of innovation by building stronger relationships between industry and the universities, adjusting its system of tax credits and improving quality of life so places like Montreal are more attractive to companies. 

He’s banking on the idea that economic prosperity appeals to all, regardless of nationalist leanings.

From businessman to national assembly

Legault says as a child growing up in a modest home in Montreal's Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, he had a dream of becoming a millionaire by age 40.

Former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard and then-education minister Francois Legault at the 1999 Quebec Summit on youth in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

A former accountant and auditor, Legault founded Air Transat in 1986 with two partners. He achieved his childhood goal by selling his shares of the billion-dollar company in 1997.

He entered politics unelected in 1998 when former PQ Premier Lucien Bouchard offered him a plum cabinet post as industry minister.

Legault won his first election later that year in Rousseau and was re-elected three times.

He sat as a PQ MNA from 1998 to 2009 holding the health and education portfolios in successive governments. When the PQ was ousted from power in 2003, Legault served as finance critic for the party.

He resigned from politics in 2009 to lay the groundwork for the CAQ alongside businessman Charles Sirois.

Legault is married and has two children.