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Who's afraid of Pauline Marois?

“Will the Quebec election be stolen by people from Ontario and the rest of Canada?” That provocative question was asked on March 23 by Bertrand St-Arnaud, Quebec’s Minister of Justice. The “threat to democracy” were a few dozens McGill and Concordia students lawfully signing up to vote.

The state of panic within the Parti Québecois is now so high that crises are being manufactured – and discarded – on a daily basis. Less than 24 hours after a staff member quit, citing “voter fraud,” the PQ dialed it back, preferring to defer to the Chief Electoral Officer who, let’s face it, left them with pie on their face. Not only were voting registration numbers normal, said Jacques Drouin, they were even lower than in 2012.

Maybe the GTA experienced roller coasters of hysteria during the election that brought in Rob Ford, I don’t know. But we sure are having a hell of a ride here in Quebec. And at the head car, with her hands high over her head and wailing like a high school girl, is the chief party animal herself, Pauline Marois. Who knew she’d be so much fun?

Who is this woman anyways and what is she doing to this province? This election has become about so many hot-button topics that we’re all breathing into paper bags, determined not to faint.

The funny thing is, Marois is everything you’d want in a politician. A working class kid from east-end Montreal, she was 32 when René Levesque made her junior minister. It only got better: under Parizeau, Bouchard and then Landry, she went from portfolio to portfolio, from opposition to power. She was the first Quebec MNA to hold the three major portfolios: Finance, Education and Health. She acquitted herself brilliantly in each of them.

Buoyed by her string of successes, she first ran for leadership of the party in 2005 but lost to André Boisclair, a young urbaine upstart with little experience and lots of attitude. The blow was visceral – experience and merit losing out to greasy charm. She announced her retirement from politics. But, as the PQ are wont to do, they cannibalized Boisclair and a year later he resigned. All possible contenders deferred to Marois and she grabbed the brass ring.

During her tenure in opposition to Charest’s Liberals, Marois had time to fashion a durable image and plan her return to power. She banged pots and pans during the Printemps d’Érable and accused the Liberals of corruption, ensuring Charest’s devastating loss and the implementation of the Charbonneau Commission on corruption.

While it would be hard to count supporters of Charest’s Liberals on more than one hand, it was nonetheless, an 8-year respite from language and identity politics. For a while it seemed like Quebec – led by the 99%, the Occupiers, the students – was gearing up to join the world.

But whoa minute, as they say in French. In the September 2012 election Pauline Marois brought the Parti Quebecois back to power. It was a minority government but it would have to do. For now. To paraphrase a bilingual Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a minority government possessed by an ambitious woman will do anything to get a majority. Anything.

And that’s when the fun and games started, bringing a return of no holds barred identity politics that made even Jacques Parizeau (he of the “money and the ethnic vote”) blanche. On one front, the Office de la langue français ramped up its indignation over language infractions (Pasta menus, Facebook pages, yogourt spoons), on the other, Bill 14 was poised to be the strongest language law yet. And best of all, a promise to hold a referendum.

But none of this hit quite the right note. Pastagate was a laughingstock, the language-law-on-steroids was a bull in a china shop, and polls showed that Quebecers were as afraid of referendums as they were of zombies. With not enough support around the table, the minority government was forced to backtrack on all of it.

So Marois brought out the big guns. In May, 2013, Bernard Drainville, minister for the newly created post of Democratic Institutions and Citizenship Participation, unveiled the Quebec Charter of Values. La merde hit the fan.

At the end of February, the Charbonneau Commission ordered Marois’ husband to testify – an ominous signal that the inquiry was getting a little too close to the PQ inner circles of power. But when Marois called for an election a week later, only a year and a half into her mandate, that speculation was put to rest and out of commission. There were bigger things at stake here. Something called power. The harnessing of Pierre Karl Péladeau, the province’s real life robber baron, testified to that.

With the elections less than 3 weeks away, anything can happen. The polls are freezing and thawing like the weather, predicting an ice-storm one day a complete melt the next. One thing’s for sure, we’re having so much fun in Quebec we could just throw up our hands and scream.

Image: L'Actualité

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