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Jean-François Lisée brings identity politics back to Parti Québécois

The new Parti Quebecois leader Jean-Francois Lisee waves to supporters after he was elected at the Parti Quebecois leadership event, Friday, October 7, 2016 in Levis Que.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A shrewd and charismatic political tactician who has spent most of his working life as an adviser and critic will now lead the latest attempted renaissance of the Parti Québécois.

Jean-François Lisée, a journalist, intellectual and key confident of Jacques Parizeau in the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, won the PQ leadership Friday on a second ballot. He upended youthful frontrunner Alexandre Cloutier by returning to the identity politics many in the PQ had rejected after their 2014 election defeat.

Mr. Cloutier and Mr. Lisée himself were among those who had declared the party was on the wrong path with the so-called charter of values that would have banned religious symbols such as the Muslim veil from public-sector workplaces. In his leadership campaign, Mr. Lisée veered back into identity politics, proposing a reduction in immigration levels in the province and launching a debate on whether to ban the burka in public.

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OPINION: Lisée does the full Trump to sway PQ faithful

Premier Philippe Couillard tersely congratulated Mr. Lisée, 58, for his victory and then lambasted him and his party for turning away from a more inclusive vision of Quebec. The PQ is moving toward "a kind of nationalism of the besieged, nationalism of the fearful, of people who don't want to deal with diversity, who prefer Quebec remains folded in on itself. That's what we see elsewhere in the world," said Mr. Couillard, who was on a trip to Iceland.

Mr. Lisée was first elected to the National Assembly in 2012 and the task ahead is monumental: The party that gained nearly 45 per cent of the popular vote in the 1995 election, and came within a fraction of a percentage point of victory in the referendum later that year, has had a succession of leaders and has seen its share of the popular vote shrink steadily.

Turnabout has become a familiar course for the PQ recently. Only eighteen months ago, the party handed its leadership over to business tycoon Pierre Karl Péladeau who declared his impatience for making Quebec an independent country. Mr. Lisée instead promises good government and putting a referendum on ice until at least 2022 – a promise once considered heresy in a party whose stated raison d'être is Quebec independence.

As in any leadership campaign, Mr. Lisée will also have internal divisions to heal – not an obvious strong suit for a man often described as arrogant and Machiavellian even among his admirers. During the campaign, Mr. Lisée darkly suggested Mr. Cloutier had the support of Muslim activist and provocateur Adil Charkaoui.

In his first speech and press conference as PQ Leader, Mr. Lisée made little mention of his wish to limit immigration or the measures he would take to enforce a secular vision of Quebec society. He did promise to reach out to Mr. Cloutier, whose failed campaign had a more inclusive vision.

Mr. Lisée said his most important goal is defeating the Liberals in the next election in October, 2018.

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"For sovereigntists, admitting we must not hold a referendum in a first PQ mandate is very difficult. But we must, both for Quebec and for the independence movement. I am absolutely convinced that this is the best way to promote independence," Mr. Lisée said. "When I made that promise, I wasn't convinced 50.6 per cent of PQ members would agree with me. It was a challenge, but they did."

Mr. Lisée should not be underestimated, according to Jean-Herman Guay, a political-science professor at Université de Sherbrooke. The new PQ Leader is the first since René Lévesque in 1981 to dare to conclusively push off a referendum date into the distant future, he said.

"The man introduced the idea of putting off a referendum to a very skeptical party. In four months, he not only defended the idea but managed to convince them," Prof. Guay said. "His position is more in sync with the average nationalist Quebecker who has no interest in a referendum. But the risk is that people see it as a purely tactical move."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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