Toula Drimonis: The rise and fall of François Legault

The CAQ leader has gone from the most popular premier in Canada to the least. Has his bag of tricks run dry?

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It looks like the accountability that Premier François Legault has largely evaded until now has finally caught up with him. The chickens — mostly kept away by polarizing reforms and crowd-pleasing populist moves — have come home to roost.

A La Presse/Angus Reid poll issued this week on the approval ratings of premiers places Legault dead last in the country, with 31 per cent support. A far cry from a few years ago when he consistently polled in the high 70s, or last year when he was the most popular premier in Canada.

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In sharp contrast, Legault now has the distinction of being the least popular premier in the country, with 40 per cent “strongly disapproving” of him. A hard landing for a politician who had succeeded until now at deflecting the consequences of his own inaction.

Back in 2020, I argued the premier’s unprecedented popularity in the polls was unwarranted. I suspected his paternalistic père de famille act played well with worried Quebecers in need of reassurance. The rally-around-the-flag phenomenon that spikes during major crises like a pandemic gave him a welcome reprieve.

The premier and his team also benefited from entering Quebecers’ homes for months during daily TV briefings. With parliamentary debates at a standstill, opposition parties could offer little in terms of criticism. The Coalition Avenir Québec government was left to govern with no real checks and balances — a recipe for breeding political arrogance.

Despite almost 18,0000 COVID deaths, many of them long-term care patients, despite a reluctance to implement additional safety measures in schools, despite the complaints about a lack of transparency and willingness to consult with experts, despite constant flip-flopping with regard to public-health protocols, Legault continued to poll well, never falling below 60 per cent, even during the worst of the pandemic.

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Meanwhile, Legault’s willingness to throw minorities under the bus continued unabated, with stigmatizing political rhetoric and legislation like Bills 21 (secularism), 9 (immigration), 96 (language) and 40 (school boards). All this profoundly affected some Quebecers but barely inconvenienced most. Tapping into a mix of cultural conservatism, nationalism and pandering populism, he convinced many Quebecers his government was looking out for their best interests. He stoked fears about language and culture for political gain, while providing little in terms of concrete investments toward promoting and protecting either. The CAQ coasted to another majority in 2022.

But that trusted bag of tricks that shielded him from criticism had to run out eventually. As more Quebecers worry about putting food on the table, they’ve seen their government vote in favour of $30,000 raises for MNAs and squander public money on silliness (have you bought your tickets to those L.A. Kings non-games yet?) among other tone-deaf moves. And suddenly more people are noticing that long-festering issues around health care, education and housing haven’t been resolved. In some cases, they have become substantially worse.

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Faced with punishing working conditions and a government unwilling to listen, essential workers have started to walk. Twice as many teachers have resigned in the past four years, turnover rates for nurses have increased since the pandemic, patients are dying in ER waiting rooms trying to access a doctor, and in the midst of one of Quebec’s worst housing crises, the housing minister cancelled lease transfers — while still finding time to violate the National Assembly’s code of ethics.

Just like that, “Au Québec, c’est comme ça qu’on vit,” as Legault has put it,  doesn’t sound like a prideful boast — it sounds like resignation and a profound failure to focus on and fix crucial problems.

Attacking English-language institutions, as the CAQ government has done with out-of-the-blue, kneecapping tuition hikes, comes across as a last-ditch move to appease those nationalists who still have the premier’s ear. But the latest polls seem to suggest the jig is up. Even that dependable trick might no longer work.

Toula Drimonis is a Montreal journalist and the author of We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada. She can be reached on X @toulastake

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