Leaders switch focus to French debate

The French-language leaders' debate on Wednesday night will give Canadian voters a final chance to see the four federal leaders quarrelling over the election's top issues.
The four political leaders will engage in the French-language debate on Wednesday at 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET. (Chris Wattie/Canadian Press)

The French-language leaders' debate on Wednesday night will give Canadian voters a final chance to see the four federal leaders quarrelling over the election's top issues.

The immediate aftermath of Tuesday night's English-language debate had each of the leaders' camps spin  that their candidate emerged from the two-hour debate victorious.

The four party leaders will use the French-language debate to articulate their competing visions in the campaign. The English debate saw the leaders trade rhetorical barbs on a variety of issues, including corporate taxes, health care and the auditor general's leaked draft report into spending at the G8/G20 summit.

The French-language debate will raise the profile of Quebec issues  specifically. It will also shift some of the spotlight onto Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, who holds the most seats in Quebec. The other party leaders will be seeking to siphon off some of the Bloc's support as they try to cut into his grip on the majority of Quebec's seats.

Christian Bourque, vice-president of Leger Marketing, said Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has the most riding on the French-language debate.

Debate details


7:10  Duceppe

7:15 Ignatieff

7:20 Harper

7:25  Layton

Debate 1 on 1s

1. Ignatieff vs. Duceppe

2. Harper vs. Layton

3.  Ignatieff vs. Harper

4.  Duceppe vs Layton

5.  Harper vs. Duceppe

6.  Layton vs. Ignatieff

Closing statements

1.  Harper

2.  Ignatieff

3.  Duceppe

4.  Layton

Post-debate statements

10:06: Ignatieff

10:13:  Duceppe

10:20:  Layton

10:27: Harper

"Not necessarily because of what happened [Tuesday] night, but given the stakes in the province of Quebec, if the Liberals want to be the No. 2 party behind the Bloc Québécois, Michael Ignatieff stands the most to gain. He could win it."

The Quebec-based pollster said it will be in the Liberal leader's interest to hit Conservative Leader Stephen Harper hard on the issues of trust and leadership if he wants to create some space between himself and his rivals.

"When we ask the question: 'Should we fear a Conservative majority?' The highest number is in Quebec. Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton, in particular, will be going after the leadership/trust issue and 'deceived,' 'lying,' those heavy words on the leadership of Mr. Harper, because that is where they stand to make the most ground."

The debate will be held at the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa, the same place as the leaders squared off on Tuesday. This time, however, the debate will be entirely in French. The English networks will carry the debate with simultaneous translation.

The debate will air between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET and be co-moderated by Radio-Canada's Anne-Marie Dussault and TVA's Paul Larocque.

The French-language leaders' debate was supposed to have been held on Thursday, but it was rescheduled  to avoid splitting the audience with the Montreal Canadiens in the team's first game in the NHL playoffs. The English debate drew almost four million total viewers on the networks.

Parties seek breakthrough

The Conservatives hope to make a breakthrough in Quebec to help them toward a majority government.

François Rocher, the director of school political studies at the University of Ottawa, said he believes Harper will need to prove to Quebec residents there are benefits to voting for the Tories.

"The issue would be to show to Quebecers that it is better to be on the side of the governing party than to be kept outside of it," Rocher said.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe is the longest-serving party leader in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"That is the old politics style. If you want to get something from the government, you are better off voting in favour of the government."

For the Liberal leader, Rocher said he is going to have to continue to distance himself from the sponsorship scandal that rocked the Liberal party a decade ago.

While Quebec issues were not the focus in the English-language debate, the leaders were questioned on their support for multiculturalism and immigration policies, particularly in Quebec.

Duceppe said he was concerned about how the multiculturalism policy can create "ghettos" of immigrants in his province.

"The conclusion of [the Bouchard-Taylor] Commission  is the multiculturalism system in Canada doesn't fit with Quebec because we think that we have to integrate the immigrants respecting them because they're modifying our society and it's a plus," Duceppe said.

"I don't have anything against immigration, but the multiculturalism doesn't fit with Quebec. We're only two per cent of francophones within North America … We have to integrate the immigrants and build a society where a Quebecer is a Quebec is a Quebecker without any exception."

Later in a rebuttal, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper took aim at the Bloc leader, linking his views on immigration to sovereignty.

"We aren't creating ghettos. It is the most successful immigration policy in the world. It's helped Canadians retain their culture while being part of the broader community," Harper said.

"I know the Bloc Québécois wants to break up the country and you don't think the new Canadians are going to support that objective."

Duceppe lacks debate 'upper hand'

Emmanuelle Latraverse, Radio-Canada's Ottawa bureau chief, said on Power & Politics with Evan Solomon Wednesday that viewers should expect a debate  more centred around values.

"Because it's always kind of a central issue of Quebec campaigns," she said.

Duceppe will likely be the focus of the debate, but with a different dynamic at work this time around, Latraverse said.

"I think it's one of the first times in a long, long time that Mr. Duceppe does not arrive at the French debate with the upper hand. He hasn't had the best campaign of all the campaigns he's had," she told Solomon. 

"A lot of observers are arguing that he's lacking the issue to mobilize the electorate around him."

Electric debate

Tuesday, Duceppe also took a swing at all three political leaders for their support over a $6.2-billion loan guarantee for the proposed Lower Churchill hydro-electric dam project  in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"This year coming with another thing denounced unanimously by the national assembly in Quebec giving Newfoundland and Labrador $4.5 billion to build their electricity lines while Quebec built — we built our lines alone," Duceppe said.

"We didn't receive a single penny from Ottawa. Nowadays you're coming with such a plan supporting the real coalition that you treat as a Canadian coalition."

Harper, who travelled to St. John's to make the commitment to the hydro-electric mega-project earlier in the campaign, defended his promise as being part of a larger package for clean energy.

"We've already done some projects in Quebec, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon, and we will continue to support projects that are good for — good for reducing climate change," Harper said.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff also made a trip to Newfoundland and Labrador to promise to back the massive project.

Leger Marketing's Bourque said the Lower Churchill project is an issue that plays well for the Bloc, because it is one of the few files that create separation between Duceppe and the other leaders.

"One reason why I think Mr. Duceppe may use that [Wednesday], it is the only issue where he can disassociate himself from all of the other leaders," Bourque said.

"He can he paint them all in the same corner on Lower Churchill; on the other issues he is onside with Mr. Layton or Mr. Ignatieff."

Beyond Quebec's borders

Many francophones outside of Quebec will also be tuning into the French-language debate, with several ridings throughout the country where the debate could help tip the balance in favour of one of the parties.

For instance, the Conservatives are hoping to wrest the New Brunswick ridings of Madawaska-Restigouche and Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe from the Liberals. A significant amount of the voters in those two ridings are francophone and likely will watch.

Chedly Belkhodja, a political scientist from the University of Moncton, said many times francophones from ridings outside of Quebec tune into the French-language debate but rarely hear issues of interest to them.

"I would say the debate may not be a big factor because it is driven largely by the Quebec networks," Belkhodja said.

"It could help a local campaign, if a leader spoke to other issues."

The political science professor said some francophones outside of Quebec may tune into the French-language debate and find themselves feeling alienated because the themes may focus on issues primarily in Quebec. He said he’s hopeful that some of the questions focus on other areas of the country and on issues, such as minority language rights outside of Quebec.

New Brunswick is the country's only official bilingual province and there are an estimated one million francophones living outside of Quebec, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. More than 550,000 of those live in Ontario.