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Macpherson: Who's afraid of François Legault

Canada's Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (L), Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (C) and Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet take part in the Federal leaders French language debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec on October 10, 2019. (Photo by Adrian Wyld / POOL / AFP)
Canada's Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau (L), Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (C) and Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet take part in the Federal leaders French language debate at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec on October 10, 2019. (Photo by Adrian Wyld / POOL / AFP)

“Sure, go ahead and laugh,” I wrote last January, in a column suggesting that the biggest threat to Justin Trudeau in Quebec in this year’s general election could come from what was then the new leader of a moribund party.

To govern is to choose, but as a Quebec-only party, with no chance of forming a government, the Bloc Québécois is relieved of that responsibility. Instead of promises to be fulfilled, its platform is a list of demands on the country.

And its leader has always been a French-speaking Quebecer, with whom its target constituency can more readily identify, and for whom the crucial French-language election debates are in his first language.

This is the first federal campaign for the Bloc’s present leader, but Yves-François Blanchet has prior political experience as a former Parti Québécois minister, and communication and debating skills developed as a former Radio-Canada political panelist.

He easily won both of the television debates in French. He so dominated the first that he seemed to intimidate the other participants, who were not as strong in French.

His PQ nickname, the Goon, suits his elbows-up-in-the-corners style of politics. He has mastered the dog whistle , the message with a double meaning, one less innocent than the other.

The perfect example is his ambiguous appeal to the audience at the end of the first French-language debate to vote for “des gens qui vous ressemblent.”

Blanchet objected when English-language journalists interpreted the phrase as “people who look like you” and a reference to Jagmeet Singh, the turbaned Sikh who leads the New Democratic Party.

The Bloc leader pointed out that in past campaigns, Thomas Mulcair and Michael Ignatieff, former leaders of the New Democratic and Liberal parties respectively, had issued similar invitations.

But the authoritative Larousse French-English dictionary gives two translations for the verb “ressembler à”: “to resemble, to look like,” and “to resemble, to be like.”

And even if the second definition is used to translate Blanchet’s words as “people like you,” the context for Mulcair and Ignatieff was different; unlike Blanchet, neither was campaigning as an us-versus-them cultural nationalist.

This brings us to Blanchet’s biggest advantage in this campaign.

In effect, he has become the federal surrogate for François Legault. The Bloc platform was practically dictated by the Coalition Avenir Québec premier, and it includes the defence of the CAQ government’s discriminatory Bill 21. And Legault, the Coalition, and Bill 21 are all popular in French Quebec.

The Bloc has always wrapped itself in the Quebec flag. Now it is wrapped in Bill 21, and the protective embrace of Legault, as well.

This week, after Trudeau said in Monday’s English-language debate that a re-elected Liberal government “might” join a court challenge against Bill 21, Legault publicly told him to butt out of Quebec’s affairs.

Trudeau has been saying the same thing since the start of the campaign. But Legault seized a pretext to intervene on behalf of the Bloc at a crucial time, just before the final French-language debate and the start of advance voting.

Since the Bloc became the frontrunner in French Quebec after the first French-language debate, Blanchet had been expected to come under attack in the final one on Thursday. But the attacks were carefully targeted to avoid hitting the Legault positions that Blanchet was defending. In effect, the Goon had a protector of his own, giving him plenty of skating room.

Liberal leader Trudeau’s timidity was especially noticeable. He attacked other premiers by name, Conservatives Doug Ford of Ontario and Jason Kenney of Alberta, but never the head of the government that passed Bill 21.

Clearly, Canada’s aspiring prime ministers are afraid of Legault. And the Quebec premier’s influence in federal politics won’t end on voting day. The Bloc members of the next Parliament will owe their election to him. And with a minority government, they could even be holding the balance of power.

dmacpgaz@gmail.com

Twitter: DMacpGaz

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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