National Column: Bonjour/hi fuss not just about language

by Chantal Hebert

Quebec’s bonjour/hi flare-up has more to do with panicky pre-electoral jitters than with the dynamics of the language debate in Montreal.

In the dying days of its fall session late last month, the national assembly took time out from a jam-packed legislative agenda to vote on a motion inviting store clerks to stick to a French-only “bonjour” when greeting customers.

The motion is non-binding. Based on a few weekend shopping trips in downtown Montreal, it is having little effect on the city’s commercial life. Over the past few years, Montrealers have learned to take the noise from the National Assembly in stride.

After all, the same MNAs just spent part of the fall fretting over otherwise elusive face-covered Muslim women riding the city’s transit system.

What the political mechanics of the unanimous vote reveal about the mindset of Quebec parties 10 months before a fall election is more instructive.

The Parti Quebecois authored the motion. Its leader, Jean-FranÁois LisÈe, subsequently bragged he had set a bear trap for the ruling Liberals. One hesitates to rain on LisÈe’s parade. The opportunities for self-congratulations have been few and far between since he became party leader.

The latest LÈger Marketing poll, published this month, pegged PQ support at barely 19 per cent. At this rate, LisÈe will lead his sovereigntist party to a rout next fall. Under that worst-case scenario, the leader himself might not make it back to the National Assembly, not that he would be terribly missed. In the Leger poll, only nine per cent picked him as their preferred premier. Only one in two PQ supporters believes he is better suited for the top job than his rivals.

The bonjour/hi ploy has served to remind voters of LisÈe’s existence, but only at a price, for it also fed the widespread perception that for this PQ leader, scoring points comes first and Quebec’s social fabric only second.

On paper, Philippe Couillard’s Liberals have assembled the ingredients for a successful re-election recipe. They have balanced the books and handed themselves a budget surplus to spread around in the last year of their mandate. Quebec’s unemployment rate is at a record low. But they have alienated a significant part of the middle class on the way to that surplus.

If an election had been held this month, Couillard would have been demoted to leader of the
opposition. The LÈger poll puts the Liberals only four points behind the Coalition Avenir Quebec provincewide. But among francophone voters, FranÁois Legault’s party enjoys a massive 23-point lead. It is the overwhelming support of anglophone and allophone voters that has been keeping the Liberals afloat in the polls. That could change over the next few public-opinion soundings. It is hard to think of what more the premier could have done to send Quebec’s English-speaking community the message that his government takes its support for granted than to vote for the bonjour/hi motion.

The backlash among anglophone voters that has attended the adoption of the motion is as understandable as it was predictable. The fact that Couillard did not see it coming is just one of many signs that his Liberals are, if not in full panic mode, then very nearly there.

This month, Quebecers were treated to the unusual sight of the premier participating in a
demonstration designed to pressure the federal government into giving more contracts to the Quebec City Davie shipyard. It was as if Couillard had lost Justin Trudeau’s phone number or, alternatively, as if the prime minister was not taking his calls.

Couillard spent much of his year-end news conference last week attacking the CAQ. But he has just spent three years shoring up his cabinet with former CAQ star candidates and stealing pages off that party’s policy platform.

At year’s end, the next Quebec election looks like it is Legault’s to lose. But he has been there before only to finish third on election night. Even as the centre-right CAQ is riding high provincially, Trudeau’s anything-but-conservative government is riding higher federally.

For the first time in decades, the debate over Quebec’s political future will not frame the ballot question in the next provincial election. As the main protagonists in the battle between federalism and sovereignty, both the Liberals and the PQ had come to surf on the issue. Based on the intellectual bankruptcy that seems to plague those two once formidable parties, it has been a soul-sucking experience.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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