It's time to stop talking about the mechanics of another referendum and to start selling the merits of sovereignty if the Parti Quebecois is going to avoid political extinction, Pauline Marois said yesterday in announcing her third try for the leadership of the battered party.
In a show of strength that makes it almost certain the former cabinet minister will not face any opponent, a determined and confident-sounding Marois told a crowd of 200 people she still has it in her heart to lead the PQ - even in its darkest hours in 20 years and despite its slip to third-party status in the hearts of Quebecers.
"I asked myself if I still had the desire to serve Quebec in this fashion," Marois said at a news conference just after the speech in which she promised to rebuild the PQ from the bottom up.
Marois said timing is everything in politics - Andre Boisclair beat her in 2005 and Pierre Marc Johnson in 1985. It appears she might get the job today because the party now realizes it made a mistake with Boisclair 18 months ago and wants to kiss and make up.
"It's not a question of it being my turn," Marois said. "I have turned the page."
Marois said she intends to make the PQ face up to its rejection in the March 26 election. Under her leadership, the party is headed back to the centre of the political spectrum, away from its recent flirtation with the radical, she said.
Boisclair tried the same shift and failed.
"A political party that does not appear to be necessary (for the people) condemns itself to being marginal and could even condemn itself to disappearing," Marois said in her speech.
"Since its foundation, the PQ built itself on two pillars: It was built on sovereignty, it was built on social democracy.
"Wanting to renounce these two pillars would be to lose our raison d'etre, it would be to lose our soul, just as the idea of radicalizing ourselves by refusing to govern Quebec while still a province would be a sure recipe for marginalization, for suicide."
She then turned to the sovereignty platform, which has monopolized the PQ for two years. That platform - which said that if elected, the PQ would hold a referendum as soon as possible within its first mandate - is dead, Marois declared.
"On March 26, the Quebec people did not say they were against sovereignty," she said. "What they said to us clearly is that they were not ready to hold a referendum.
"No people can renounce its freedom, its independence. No political party morally has the right to put aside - in a definitive manner - the right of a people to self-determination. But all the time and energy spent debating the mechanics is time not spent convincing (the people) of the necessity of this sovereignty," she said.
"The PQ must get away from the trap of deadlines and referendum obligations. We have to stop running from our problems."
Now on the path to becoming the first female opposition leader in Quebec history and potentially the first female premier of the province, Marois beamed when asked how she felt to be back in the race for a job that first eluded her 22 years ago.
"I am very serene," Marois said.
"I think we have great things to build together. The job will be tough, but I know that."
Marois, 58, conceded she was happy with her life at home in her garden, but she said she had asked herself whether she could she live with her regret at not having tried - one more time - for the leadership.
She answered yes on Friday morning, not even knowing then that Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe would clear the way for her by pulling out of the race one day later.
Marois praised the Bloc leader for having the courage to bow out of the race, and said Duceppe showed a "great sense of responsibility" and will emerge from this a bigger man in the eyes of sovereignists.
Duceppe probably won't get so easy a ride today when he faces his caucus in Ottawa at 11 a.m. to explain his flip-flop.
The heckling in the House of Commons could be brutal.
While some Bloc MPs called Duceppe over the weekend, complaining that he hadn't informed him about his plans and urging him not to leave the federal party for its provincial counterpart, most believed his stunning flip-flop ended with the right decision yesterday.
"He believed that he could be useful in Quebec City, it's not wrong for him to have thought so, but he changed his mind," Bloc MP Real Menard told the LCN French-language news network.
"I don't think it's a sign of weakness for a leader to admit his mistakes. He misjudged the situation, he misjudged not the level of support he had, because it's clear he had some support in Quebec City, but he misjudged the potential for division that was sparked by his decision," Menard said.
Several Bloc MPs said they were surprised to hear that Duceppe had changed his mind, but they all expected the caucus to rally behind him to reiterate their support, leading up to a general confidence vote by the party in October.
The entire Marois fan club - some of whom have been at her side for more than 20 years - turned out to hear her announcement, made in a conference room in Longueuil hotel.
The room gushed yesterday with a warmth rarely felt for Boisclair.
Many of the women carried spring tulips or roses, which they handed to Marois - a mother of three - as she entered the room.
One elderly man sported a Marois campaign button from her 1985 campaign.
Another supporter shouted: "The king is dead, long live the queen."
Even before she delivered her speech, there was a round of "Ma chere Pauline, c'est a ton tour" from supporters crowded around the stage.
Nicole Asselin, a friend of Marois for 30 years, added: "I told my kids I wanted a gift today for Mother's Day. I told them I wanted to come and see Pauline."
Sounding more confident than she did at any point in the 2005 campaign, Marois delivered a speech that was a combination of classic "no-nonsense Pauline" and motherly advice.
Later, in an interview on the Lapierre-Larocque Sunday political panel on TVA, she was asked flat out whether she was dumping the article in the PQ's program about a referendum as soon as possible.
"That's exactly it," Marois replied.
"We will hold a referendum once we have done enough work, when Quebecers tell us, because I think they will tell us one day. We will work, we will listen, we will show what it (sovereignty) would change in the lives of Quebecers."
Marois was blunt when asked if she were imposing a new mantra on a party known for bucking strong leaders who try to tell them what to do.
"I am telling them, if you pick me as leader, you are picking me with this (philosophy)."
Marois now appears to be an unstoppable force, with almost the entire caucus - including many Pequiste MNAs who had been sitting on the fence - turning out for her launch.
The new supporters included Rousseau MNA Francois Legault, who was pushing for a leadership race, and the influential Louise Harel, MNA for Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, who has credibility among social democrats.
Harel is a close friend to Duceppe.
Legault said later he decided to sign on with Marois after she agreed with his idea of modernizing the PQ's program to put it more in tune with the real needs of the people.
As was the case in the recent French elections, the PQ needs a debate on how to become what Legault called an "efficient left" that favours economic prosperity at the same time.
It also needs to recoup the identity issue - matters of language and culture - from the Action democratique du Quebec, which exploited them with great success in the last election.
"I think, perhaps, we drifted away from what Quebecers desired," Legault said.
"We need to reinforce our identity, we need to affirm, at the same time as being open, our language and culture. We must not try to create unanimity, but a consensus."
Marois referred to the same issue in her speech, noting the PQ had lost touch with what Quebecers were concerned about in its eternal fighting about referendum plumbing.
Others who turned out included Borduas MNA Pierre Curzi, who had thought of running himself, Mercier MNA Daniel Turp, Matapedia's Danielle Doyer and defeated Laurier-Dorion MNA Elsie Lefebvre.
There were three Bloc MPs in the room: Real Menard, Francine Lalonde and Maria Mourani, as well as PQ stalwart Yves Martin, a personal adviser to both Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard.
Most agreed Marois's arrival comes at a moment of need for the PQ, a party torn from stem to stern by division and rancour.
"Pauline represents hope to reconquer the heart and souls of Quebecers," Turp said. "In political life, there are moments - it's her moment."
Menard said the PQ could not go on fighting forever.
"It's like an old couple that has spent a lifetime fighting who learns one of them has a terminal illness," he said.
"People have told me: 'Andre Boisclair gave what he could, but he was not the man for the situation.'
"And now Pauline arrives with all her strength."
It's marois's moment'
Kicks off bid to lead PQ. Party stalwart looks invincible after Duceppe's withdrawal