First, there was the ROC - Rest of Canada - as seen from Quebec. Should we start talking about the ROQ - the Rest of Quebec - as seen from Montreal?
The gap between Quebec's only large city and the rest of the province is widening. The recent crisis in Hérouxville over ethnic integration has acted as a revelator of the sharp divisions between Montreal and the rest of the province. On the surface, by enacting an eerie code banning the stoning of women, Hérouxville's city councillors were reacting against what they saw as a threat posed by Muslim immigrants to Quebec culture and values. But as La Presse columnist Alain Dubuc recently pointed out, there was another subtext to this strange outburst of anger against immigrants, coming from a town where there is not a single immigrant.
"Although Hérouxville's reaction was xenophobic, immigrants may not be the main target of this revolt," wrote Mr. Dubuc. "There is something else at work here, and it's the revolt against the big city, its ideas, its lifestyle, its influence. What happened in Hérouxville is the ultimate expression of the fracture between the metropolis and the regions."
He continued: "Hérouxville was angered by the tolerance of Montrealers, by their passivity towards the changes brought out by immigration, by their multi-ethnic culture, their rejection of religion, their 'gay village' and their arrogant elites. For small towns such as Hérouxville, the real threat to their identity has little to do with veil-clad Muslim women, it is the urban world that is gradually drifting away from the traditional model."
This is why Hérouxville's reaction against Montreal's tolerance of religious minorities was so largely echoed throughout the province, and this is why Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec is relentlessly exploiting the issue during the election campaign. This theme plays well in his main constituency - the semi-rural, conservative areas that voted for Stephen Harper in the last federal election.
Quebec City, even though it is not rural, is following the same pattern, thanks to its solid tradition of rebelling against anything that comes from Montreal. People in Quebec City routinely talk about Montreal's "imperialism." Montreal, Quebec's only major city, and its only cosmopolitan area to boot, is both envied and despised. A few weeks ago, the vice-president of the Bloc Québécois, Hélène Alarie (who comes from the Quebec City area), published a scathing report against the Montreal orientations that Leader Gilles Duceppe and his entourage have imprinted on the party. The Bloc, she says, lost ground to Stephen Harper's Conservative Party because it is too focused on Montreal and too left-leaning. People in and around Quebec City don't like the Bloc's positions on firearms, gay marriage or assisted suicide.
When some local authorities in Montreal caved in to the abusive demands of a few extremist religious groups, it instantly became a lightning rod for all the resentment accumulated in the regions toward Montreal's dominance of the public agenda.
The resentment had been on the boil for a long time. I don't know how many times I heard people from outlying regions - including highly placed government officials based in Quebec City - complain that they don't feel that they are in Quebec when they visit Montreal.
They have an image of Montreal as a big, noisy, polluted place - a place filled with foreigners, where English is spoken everywhere and even old-stock francophones are different. When I visited Belgium, I was startled to hear exactly the same kind of talk in Liège (a homogeneous French-speaking town that sees itself as the heartland of the Walloons) against Brussels, the bilingual capital where, say many Liègeois, the old-stock Walloons have been somehow corrupted by their closeness to the Flemish.
At first sight, the Quebec election that officially started on Wednesday is devoid of passion and important issues. But in the background, there is a simmering revolt against urban values. This is why the party to watch is Mario Dumont's ADQ, which might make gains in the francophone rural areas at the expense of the Parti Québécois.