Maybe we're all being a little too hard on Gilles Duceppe. Who amongst us hasn't made a major life decision and then immediately suffered terror and regret?
On Friday, when Mr. Duceppe announced his candidacy for the Parti Quebecois leadership, he was obviously following a plan made long in advance. He had good reasons to feel as though he had let the sovereigntist movement down by not providing an alternative to Andre Boisclair in 2005. But after casting his lot, he saw just a few hours too late that the opportunity cost of leaving his post at the head of the Bloc Quebecois was too great, and that -- in any case -- becoming head of the PQ was no longer much of a prize.
We have come a long way from the white heat of the 1960s, when nationalism could still go about in the dress of the postcolonial New Left and claim to be the latest in radical chic. The general trends in the wider world -- toward globalization and free trade; toward English as the common lingua franca of mankind; toward an acceptance of Anglo-Saxon norms of government and rationalism; away from trade unionization and Marxist dialectic -- have all undercut the claim of the Parti to be an instrument of morally superior values within Quebec. The PQ is not only just another party now, but thanks to Mario Dumont, it's one among three instead of two.
In such a context, Pauline Marois is probably a sound choice for the PQ leadership because she has some reputation for pure managerial competence and has no interest in forcing voters to accept an unwanted referendum in exchange for their support. But if Ms. Marois has the virtue of being strong enough to keep pro-referendum sentiment in its place, she will have other challenges to meet allergic to the second option, and the electoral gains made by Mr. Dumont's (relatively) promarket Action democratique du Quebec signal that Quebecers may not be so passionate about remaining maitres chez nous that they are willing to tolerate a rising mortgage and an underfunded infrastructure in their house. With waiting lists in Quebec's much-hyped subsidized day-care system rising and unsubsidized private providers quitting the business, Ms. Marois may not only be unable to afford whatever her next big, bright social democratic idea happens to be; the former minister of health and social services could find herself in increasing trouble defending her last one.
Meanwhile, she is going to have to find a way to compete with Dumont on the culturalvalues file. The debate over "reasonable accommodation" for immigrants has shattered the polite consensus on the general desirability of multiple ethnicities, and nowhere has the blow fallen harder than in Quebec. Which "multiculturalism" do Quebecers want? -- a quilt of mutually exclusive cultural enclaves or a multi-racial society in which all are expected to subscribe to common norms of public behaviour, equality and tolerance? Mr. Boisclair's PQ took the extreme view that it was probably racist to even think of asking the question.
Whether that's right or wrong (we'd say it's very wrong), it is certainly awkward for a "nationalist" party to take the view that there is nothing relevant or worth defending about the "nation" except, perhaps, its geographic borders. The good news for Ms. Marois is that she will take over her party's leadership without serious competition. The bad news is that no one--including voters -- has any idea what that party stands for anymore.
If the PQ is not committed to an imminent referendum, what can its animating objective be within a Canada where the concept of Quebec as a nation has been formally accepted by all the federal parties? It must be said that Stephen Harper's move in this direction through his Quebec-as-nation resolution, while still grumbled about in English Canada, is looking better and better with every gaffe and squabble that takes place in the sovereignist camp.
Two traditional alternatives are economic nationalism -- the old doctrine of Quebec Inc. -- and constitutional revision. But for the moment, Quebec (and the rest of Canada) is positively -- as PQ boss -- challenges that Mr. Duceppe was perhaps even less well placed to confront.