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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Embracing nationalism, a Canadian provincial leader wins reelection

Quebec’s premier, François Legault, speaking in May at a political convention in Drummondville, Quebec. He overwhelmingly won re-election Monday, according to preliminary results.

By Norimitsu Onishi

Voters in Quebec overwhelmingly reelected Premier François Legault to a second term Monday, embracing his appeals to French Québécois identity in a campaign marked by heated debates over the inflow of immigrants to Canada’s French-speaking province.

Legault’s party, Coalition Avenir Québec, won a majority of seats in the provincial legislature — significantly increasing its share of seats to 93 from 76 — with an agenda that emphasized an identity-based nationalism and pro-business policies, but set aside the long-held separatist goal of turning Quebec into an independent nation, according to preliminary election results after polls closed at 8 p.m.

With his victory to another four-year term, Legault, 65, who co-founded a successful budget airline before entering politics and is known for his pragmatism, continued to reshape Quebec’s political landscape. The two parties that had enjoyed a lock on the province since the 1970s — the federalist, pro-business Liberal Party and the separatist, social democratic Parti Québécois — came in a distant second and fourth respectively.

For Canada’s federal government, which is already facing a brewing separatist movement in the oil-rich province of Alberta, the electoral results in Quebec could lead to more demands by Legault for greater control over immigration policy and other potentially hot-button issues.

Legault’s party won 43% of the popular vote, compared with 37% in 2018, and 93 seats in the 125-seat National Assembly, according to preliminary results. His support was strongest in the suburban and rural districts that are home to the highest percentage of French Québécois voters, according to polls before the election.

In Montreal, the multicultural and ethnically diverse city that has sometimes been a punching bag for Legault’s allies, his party was expected to come in second place behind the Liberal Party.

During the five-week campaign, Legault accused Montrealers of “looking down’’ on the people of Quebec City, the provincial capital, in one of several comments that, critics and opponents said, were meant to act as wedges between the French Québécois majority and the province’s English-speaking and other ethnic, racial and religious minorities.

Enjoying strong approval ratings thanks to his economic policies and his leadership during the pandemic, Legault appeared to want to coast to reelection by running a low-key campaign that both the French and English news media described as lackluster.

But the polarizing issue of immigration became one of the campaign’s dominant themes, and its most divisive, after Legault linked immigration to violence and extremism. He apologized for his remarks, but later described increasing immigration as “suicidal” for Quebec’s French identity.

Immigration is not a major political issue for much of the rest of Canada, with the federal government planning to significantly increase the number of immigrants allowed into the country over the next few years to fill labor shortages. But in Quebec — the province with the greatest control over immigration policy — the arrival of immigrants is seen as altering the French Québécois’ linguistic and Roman Catholic heritage.

Legault wants to maintain an annual cap of 50,000 immigrants permitted to settle in the province of 8.7 million. With Quebec also facing labor shortages as well as a low birthrate and an aging population, some political opponents and most business groups want that level raised by tens of thousands more.

Legault started his political career in the separatist, social democratic Parti Québécois, which, for decades, led the province’s independence movement. Fighting on behalf of a French-speaking majority that had felt historically oppressed by an economically dominant English-speaking minority, the Parti Québécois identified with liberation movements throughout the world.

But even as Legault has pushed aside the idea of independence, he has tapped into an identity-based nationalism that, critics say, marginalizes the province’s non-French Québécois minorities. In his first term, Legault’s government has further restricted the use of English and has banned the wearing of religious symbols by some government workers in public places, in a move that, critics say, effectively targeted veiled Muslim women.

If Legault has reshaped Quebec politics, his strong popularity among French Québécois voters has nearly wiped the separatist Parti Québécois off the electoral map. According to preliminary results, it won only two seats in Monday’s election.

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