Politics·Analysis

French-language debate pits passion over reason

It was a tough night for reason in its age-old battle against passion as leaders faced off in the French-language debate. Veiled women, the Senate, ISIS — all topics heavy with nuance and complexity — but for which the majority of Canadians see simple solutions.

Harper, Duceppe hit hot-button issues such as banning niqabs, but will it swing votes?

Justin Trudeau, Gilles Duceppe, Tom Mulcair and Stephen Harper debate the plan to ban Muslims from wearing the facial covering at citizenship ceremonies. 4:09

It was a tough night for reason in its age-old battle against passion, as five political leaders faced off on stage in the French-language debate in Montreal.

Veiled women, the Senate, ISIS — all topics heavy with nuance and complexity — but for which the majority of Canadians see simple solutions: Muslim women should dress like everyone else and bombs ought to be dropped on the other two.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada acknowledges the issue of wearing a veil during a citizenship ceremony is one that affects a "minuscule" number of women. Yet how important was the niqab in last night's debate?

It led to Gilles Duceppe, leader of the sovereignist Bloc Québécois, calling for tougher laws to protect Canadian citizenship ceremonies — and no one was reaching for the smelling salts.

The niqab was at the heart of by far the most heated exchange of any of the debates so far. Fingers jabbed in the air, voices were raised, women's rights and daughters were invoked.

In the fray, questions were raised about why the federal government is setting a dress code for only certain women from one religion.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, left, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, right, leave the set after the French-language debate Thursday in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Some have tried to square the circle of defending a woman's rights by denying her citizenship.

But the people — it seems — have spoken, as suggested by a public-opinion poll ordered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper earlier this year that found overwhelming support among Canadians for the requirement that women remove their niqabs or burqas at citizenship ceremonies.

So it's no mistake both Duceppe and Harper leapt with gusto on this question — and then even circled back to it in their closing statements.

The other leaders, who oppose the ban, let the issue drop after the initial segment was done.

Beating up the Senate

Similarly, a dispassionate observer could be forgiven for believing Duceppe single-handedly left NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's plea for Senate abolishing in tatters.

After Mulcair reiterated that he's seeking a mandate from Canadian voters to sit down with the provinces and get their necessary unanimous support to abolish what Mulcair deemed a "relic" of "our British traditions."

NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe and face off on senate reform. 1:59

Why stop there, Duceppe asked. The Bloc leader called the monarchy another obsolete relic that ought to be abolished at the same time a Mulcair government were to open up the Constitution to do away with the Red Chamber.

So, to follow Duceppe's logic: Getting rid of the Senate requires unanimous support of the provinces; getting the support of Quebec, its longstanding issues would have to be addressed first — and that may include severing ties with Britain's monarchy — which, in turn, would completely change the way our system works.

A few years ago, the thought of re-opening the Constitution would turn most Canadians' stomach. But now, it seems after years of scandal, whichever candidate promises to treat the Senate as badly as possible might just have an edge.

The other part of appealing to emotions and passions is through performance, and on that front, the scores are very different:

The Bloc

Duceppe spent a lot of time demanding what the other parties might do on particular issues without offering many solutions. A casual observer of politics could have mistaken him for one of the moderators at times.

The first mention of Quebec sovereignty came a little more than an hour into the debate; no mention of it was made in Duceppe's closing statement.

Which raises the question: What does the Bloc stand for any more?​

The Conservative

One couldn't help shake the feeling Harper really didn't want to be there. Other than the animated segment on the niqab, the Conservative leader held back most of the night. 

Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Green leader Elizabeth May spar over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal during the French language debate. 1:24

His party comes into this election with five seats in Quebec. It's unlikely anything that happened in this debate will change that by much.

The NDP

Some observers in the English media quickly pronounced that "Angry Tom" made an appearance last night. While not entirely false, it's also not entirely fair either.

Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair argue over Mulcair's record as Quebec's environment minister. 1:05

Let's face it, French is spoken not just with different words but a different style, as well. Especially in Quebec, and especially when you're talking politics, a big voice and finger jabs in the air are used to show you care.

Mulcair did what he needed to do in this debate and was helped by the fact the Bloc failed to present a reason for Quebecers to swing back their way.

The Liberal

Justin Trudeau's performance was similar to that of his previous debate appearances, although a little more restrained. 

He tried hard to knock Mulcair off of his game to present his party as the best alternative to the Conservatives — but little seemed to stick.

NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau spar over the Clarity Act at the French language leaders debate. 1:34

Those who went in disliking Trudeau probably still found him a little too chippy. Those who worry he is "just not ready," as the Conservative ads have said over and over, will likely keep watching him and wondering.

The Green

Considering Elizabeth May is the least strong in French of anyone else on stage, she did her best. She made her points, strong as they usually are but not with the eloquence she has in her first language. 

It took more than half a century for the NDP to make its breakthrough in Quebec, so the Greens likely have a way to go yet.

One of the advantages of the extra-long campaign is the fact there is time for more than one leaders' debate in English and one in French. 

Voters have so far had three opportunities to see for themselves what each leader is presenting — and there are two more debates to come.

About the Author

James Fitz-Morris

Parliament Hill

James Fitz-Morris covered federal politics in CBC's Parliament Hill bureau from 2006 to February, 2016.

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