These are not great days for the sovereigntist camp. According to a recent CROP poll, the Bloc Québécois is down to 31 per cent while the Conservative Party - which has been gathering strength in the past few months - is now at par with the Bloc. Since the last federal election, the Conservatives have gained six points and the Bloc has lost 11. A polling expert says that if an election had been held last week, the Conservatives might have ended up with 35 seats and the Bloc with only 30. For the first time since its arrival on the federal scene in 1993, the Bloc seems about to lose its grip on Quebec.
Provincially, the tiny breeze of excitement stirred by Pauline Marois's election to the helm of the Parti Québécois - the first time a woman has led a major party in Quebec - has subsided. According to the same CROP poll, Mario Dumont's right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec is losing ground to Premier Jean Charest's Liberals, leaving the three parties basically tied. The PQ remains the most popular party among francophones, with 36 per cent support, but the Liberals increased their standing among francophones to 23 per cent from 15 in three months.
It's unclear why Mr. Charest is seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Is it because he has pandered on several occasions to nationalist feelings? Or, on the contrary, because a good number of francophones are fed up with the nasty debate on identity and expect the Liberals to put an end to the xenophobia unleashed by the overexploitation of a few incidents involving religious minorities?
Even though it tried hard, the PQ was unable to leverage the so-called "identity crisis" of some old-stock francophones who now feel free to openly voice their fear of being submerged by "others."
Ms. Marois's tough-love private member's bill for integrating immigrants in the end met a barrage of criticism from all sides - and some of the most vocal opposition came from people who are close to the sovereigntist movement.
The bone of contention was a provision in the bill (which both the Liberals and ADQ refused to table) that would create a Quebec constitution and a Quebec citizenship that all newcomers, including Canadian citizens, would require to run for municipal and provincial office, to petition the National Assembly and to contribute to political parties. Applicants would have to pass a French-language test and swear allegiance to Quebec's constitution in order to obtain this citizenship. Of course, such a system establishes two classes of citizens and deprives some of political rights.
The proposal triggered a huge outcry. Dozens of jurists took a public stand against it, saying it would be discriminatory and unconstitutional. In less than two days, a protest letter written by a graduate student at the Université de Montréal gathered more than 1,000 signatures. Even the labour movement leaders - traditional allies of the PQ - condemned the proposal. Most French-speaking commentators, including sovereigntists, didn't have enough strong words to denounce it. And some of Ms. Marois's closest advisers, like former PQ minister Joseph Facal, openly voiced their objections.
Some observers believe the "bill" was part of a Machiavellian strategy aimed at stealing the identity issue from the ADQ, while fomenting divisions between francophones and anglophones. If this was the goal, it failed miserably.
The "Marois bill" also calls for a series of measures aimed at helping immigrants learn French. This raised no objections in and of itself, although such measures already exist. And, in fact, since Quebec chooses its immigrants under a point system that grants special importance to language, more than half of today's immigrants are francophones, mainly from North Africa. Ironically, it is the arrival of these French-speaking immigrants who happen to be Muslims that now adds fuel to the current wave of xenophobia.