As dust settles from Bouchards speech, change in Que. politics becomes clear

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MONTREAL - As the dust finally settles from the storm kicked up by former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard and his denunciation of the Parti Quebecois, there are hints of a realignment in Quebec politics.

When the populist right-wing Action democratique du Quebec imploded in last fall's election, going from 41 seats to seven, its considerable political spoils were suddenly up for grabs.
The PQ has done its best to reclaim the crowd of conservative nationalists who abandoned the ADQ.
The Pequistes have done it recently by going after Jewish Sunday schools, and accusing the Charest government of turning a blind eye to threats against Quebec's secular identity.
"Quebecers don't agree with this government's laissez-faire attitude towards the affirmation of fundamental Quebec values," Leader Pauline Marois charged in the legislature last week.
While the PQ has long been an ardent defender of Quebec's linguistic difference, it has gone a step further lately and accused the government of pandering to Canadian-style multiculturalism.
The PQ has spent the past several days hammering the Liberal government for changing a law to allow a handful of Orthodox Jewish schools to offer classes on Sunday.
That prompted Bouchard, who nearly guided the Yes side to victory in the 1995 referendum, to quip that his old party was radicalizing itself to occupy the ADQ's niche.
"I don't like what I'm hearing from the Parti Quebecois," he said.
He added that the party's founder, Rene Levesque, went out of his way to demonstrate respect for religious minorities.
Outrage at Bouchard quickly followed, over that intolerance charge as well as his suggestion that sovereignty be shelved while Quebec deals with more pressing social problems.
PQ legislator Bernard Drainville argued in an open letter to the ex-premier that Quebec's changing demographics, and higher immigration rates, made it necessary to fully integrate newcomers.
"It's a humanist, even progressive, position that aims to better welcome those who want to build tomorrow's Quebec with us," Drainville said.
Fiery Journal de Montreal columnist Richard Martineau even suggested the PQ wasn't going far enough in defending Quebec's identity.
His daily TV show, and column, have become a frequent platform for warnings about threats to Quebec's language, secular identity, and principle of equality between men and women.
"What will it take to prove . . . to the rest of the world that the nationalist movement doesn't advocate closure, just self-respect," he wrote in a column last week.
"How many accommodations have to be made before we stop brandishing the spectre of racism?
"Will we have to open the doors of public schools to creationists? Ask the Bonhomme Carnaval to wear a kirpan? Tell us, Mr. Bouchard: What will it take to make you happy? Letting women in burqas work as strippers at Chez Paree?"
The latest furor comes three years after the province was gripped by a frenzied debate over how far the Quebecois should go in accommodating minorities.
At the height of the controversy, there were sensational newspaper headlines like one about a sugar shack being forced to remove pork from its traditional pea-soup recipe to please a group of Muslim customers.
At the time, one little girl was kicked out of a tae-kwon-do tournament for wearing a hijab.
The ADQ made political mileage out of those controversies, and the tiny party stunned the province by vaulting to official opposition status in April 2007.
The Charest government ultimately wiggled out of the thorny issue by calling a public inquiry into cultural diversity. Bouchard's brother, Gerard, was one of the inquiry co-chairs.
The probe's recommendations were largely ignored. The ADQ disappointed supporters with a performance in opposition widely considered amateurish, and it was decimated in a 2008 election.
But for those thinking they'd heard the last of the so-called reasonable accommodations debate, the recent message has been clear: think again.
"The PQ isn't simply going after the ADQ's votes," said Jean-Francois Lisee, a former Bouchard adviser and blogger for monthly Quebec magazine L'actualite.
"They are swimming with the current on a subject that half of Quebecers consider important."
A poll last week suggested the vast majority of Quebecers - three-quarters - were unhappy with the Charest government's hands-off handling of accommodation issues.
But, conversely, another poll showed respondents evenly split over whether Bouchard was right in calling the reasonable accommodations debate "futile." It also suggested two-thirds agreed with him that Quebec should shelve talk of sovereignty.
Some observers suggest another alignment could be under way - one where parties are forced to focus on economic issues, as Bouchard hopes, and less on cultural grievances.
The story of the ADQ, which now has only four seats after a series of defections, might provide some caution to anyone in the PQ hoping to ride the wave of identity politics to electoral triumph.
"It's very hard to win on those kinds of issues; the ADQ tried to their dismay," said Antonia Maioni, director of McGill University's Institute for the Study of Canada.
"They're controversial and they sometimes bring out the worst, as well as the best, in people."

Organizations: Parti Quebecois, Action democratique du Quebec, Fiery Journal Quebec magazine McGill University Institute for the Study of Canada

Geographic location: Quebec, MONTREAL

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