The Parti Québécois is attacking Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard's loyalty to the province as the election campaign enters its final week, warning voters that electing their rival would mean a return to institutional bilingualism and the rise of religious fundamentalism.
"He is truly a risk to our language and culture," PQ Leader Pauline Marois said Sunday. "When he speaks about language it is [to] bilingualize Quebec … . I believe Mr. Couillard, who changes his mind on just about everything and on what is fundamental to the Quebec nation: its identity, language, culture, history, isn't ready to govern Quebec."
After seeing renewed referendum talk push the Liberals into the lead, the PQ began to attack Mr. Couillard on his business dealings, but has now shifted the offensive to his willingness to defend Quebec's language and culture.
This time, Ms. Marois's ammunition came from comments Mr. Couillard made during last Thursday's leaders' debate, when he was asked why someone would need to speak English to work in a factory.
"There are more and more jobs where it is important. You know very well. Even on factory floors, it's becoming more and more important," Mr. Couillard said. Later in the debate he said: "Bilingualism is not a threat. Knowledge of English is indispensable."
Then on Friday, while campaigning in Blainville, north of Montreal, Mr. Couillard explained the advantages of being bilingual: "It's a great advantage for anyone to be bilingual. I know. This is something the péquistes don't want me to say, but I'll say it again: There's not a single parent in Quebec that doesn't hope for their kids to be bilingual. It's such a fantastic asset in life. And it goes the other way, for English-speaking kids to be bilingual in French is a fantastic asset."
Mr. Couillard did not disavow these comments, but fought back on Sunday by vowing to safeguard the French language and saying he had no lessons to learn from the PQ about patriotism.
Ms. Marois was not alone in her attacks on the Liberal leader. Janette Bertrand, the 89-year old popular former TV host and defender of women's rights in the province, spoke Sunday at a PQ rally, saying that if the party is defeated in the April 7 election it will spell the end of the secular charter and the rise of religious fundamentalism. Ms. Bertrand called it a "danger" to Quebec society and that could lead to the erosion women's rights and jeopardize gender equality in the province.
"If I am here today it is because we must vote for Ms. Marois, the Parti Québécois because if we don't there will be no charter," Ms. Bertrand said.
Last fall, Ms. Bertrand founded a pro-charter group nicknamed Janettes along with Julie Snyder, the wife of media magnate and star PQ candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau. They recruited several other prominent figures in defending the secular charter to fight religious fundamentalism.
On Friday, Ms. Marois said her party would defend the French language by adopting a new version of Law 101, the province's French-language charter. Mr. Couillard said a Liberal government would ensure the "vigorous application" of that law. But he said the legislation went far enough, and that toughening it "wouldn't help social harmony."
"I'm 56 years old and believe me, the French face of Quebec has vastly improved," Mr. Couillard said. "It's considerable. We have to continue in that direction."
The PQ has used language and the Charter of Values, which seeks to ban public workers from wearing certain religious symbols such as the hijab, as wedge issues to bolster its support among francophone voters.
Ms. Marois started the campaign with a slight lead over the Liberals. (A Léger poll released on the day the election was called, March 5, showed the PQ at 37 per cent, ahead of the Liberals at 35 per cent, with the Coalition Avenir Québec trailing at 15 per cent and Quebec Solidaire at 8 per cent.) However PQ support dropped drop significantly over the proposition that, if elected, the PQ would hold another referendum on sovereignty. The latest Léger poll published in the Journal de Montréal last week showed the Liberals in the lead with 40 per cent and the PQ at 33 per cent and holding only a 10-point lead among francophone voters.
Mr. Couillard said Sunday that the PQ didn't have a monopoly on protecting Quebeckers' identity. "Madame Marois has no lessons to teach anyone in Quebec about patriotism," Mr. Couillard said during a campaign swing north of Montreal. "The flag of Quebec belongs to all Quebeckers." "My Quebec identity is deep, very deep."