On the campaign trail, Jean Charest's most vocal critics aren't likely to get close. And now he's fending off questions about whether he's carefully avoiding encounters with the public by staying firmly inside a campaign bubble.
On Monday morning, as Montreal's rebellious CEGEP students returned to school and began voting on whether to continue their strike against tuition hikes, the Quebec Liberal Leader was on a farm an hour east of Quebec City.
The number of students on strike in Quebec has dwindled considerably, with people at several colleges voting on Monday to end protest actions that had drawn international attention during events some dubbed the Maple Spring. After three more votes on Monday to end the strike, the tally now stands at six to one among junior colleges, called CEGEPs in Quebec, in favour of returning to class. However, more votes are scheduled in the coming days and some university faculties have voted to keep striking.
While the students voted, Mr. Charest was forced to answer questions about why his "spontaneous" visit on Sunday to a poutinerie in St. Raymond occurred when TV cameras had already left for Quebec City. Unlike his opponents, he has eschewed main street meet-and-greets.
"It was a spontaneous decision," Mr. Charest said of his visit to the Ti-Oui snack bar on Sunday night. He insisted there was no plan to ditch TV cameras to prevent them from capturing any potential incident in a rare unvetted encounter with the public. "Before going to Ti-Oui ... we also had an event with several hundred people. You're going to say it's our [party] members, but that's real people, that, who are interested in the election campaign and will go have their say Sept. 4."
He shrugged off questions about why he hasn't walked among ordinary folks, shaking hands in crowds, as Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois did at Montreal's Atwater market earlier in the campaign. He's trying to communicate his policies to as many people as possible, he said.
"I go to the Atwater market from time to time. I don't just go to the Atwater market during election campaigns. I don't just go to the grocery store during election campaigns," he said. "Since last January, I've gone all around Quebec."
Mr. Charest is not the first political leader to ensconce himself in a campaign bubble. His relatively light schedule of events, typically before party supporters, vetted hosts, or invited guests, is similar to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's heavily scripted campaign routine. And Mr. Charest answers more questions from journalists. But after a spring of heated student strikes, and personal popularity deeply dented after nine years in power, his campaign style has drawn suggestions he's hiding out to prevent ugly incidents.
Mr. Charest's government adopted a tough back-to-school law – a political gamble that, in Mr. Charest's words, the "silent majority" of Quebeckers didn't want to see the province bend to the protesters' tuition demands.
But the test of whether the strikes will fizzle out or flare anew comes later this week, when several more colleges vote on whether to end their strikes.
And while students were voting on Monday, Mr. Charest was campaigning on a farm, at a trucking company, and a rally, all along the St. Lawrence River valley east of Quebec City, and miles from potential protest hotspots. "Let's hope it goes smoothly in Montreal, and elsewhere," he said.