POLITICS

Will Quebec's 'Concrete Lady' crumble, or be standing tall on election day?

08/01/2012 12:18 EDT | Updated 10/01/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - An Iron Lady shook up Britain's political culture in the 1980s. Quebecers must now decide if they want a so-called "Concrete Lady": Pauline Marois.

As leader of the union-friendly Parti Quebecois, Marois couldn't be further from Margaret Thatcher ideologically. But as their nicknames suggest, their stories hold some similarities.

Like Thatcher, Marois has developed a reputation for resilience in a male-dominated industry. In her five years at the helm of the PQ, she has defied repeated diagnoses that declared her politically dead.

She spent several taxing months fighting off successive putsch attempts. Elements of her party have grown impatient with her refusal to set a fixed timeline for a referendum on Quebec independence, to be held after a PQ election win, which she hopes to achieve on Sept. 4.

But Marois has weathered the tumult.

After languishing in the polls, Marois suddenly surged into the lead last spring, just as student unrest was beginning to spread.

"Am I mistaken, or is it going a little better for us?" Marois said with a smile at the time.

She managed to fend off her rivals within the PQ, less by bending to their demands than by simply waiting them out. A number of members walked out of caucus in 2011 to protest Marois' handling of the Quebec City arena file, including such senior figures as Louise Beaudoin and Pierre Curzi.

Beaudoin rejoined the party. Curzi will retire from politics as an Independent.

"She's hard-headed, in the positive sense of the term," said Remy Trudel, a former PQ cabinet minister who worked alongside Marois under successive premiers.

"She's a stubborn woman in the sense that she's determined. That's her biggest quality."

It was after emerging unscathed from this rough patch that a Quebec humorist anointed Marois with the Thatchereseque nickname "the Concrete Lady" ("la dame de beton" in French).

But the image of Marois as Concrete Lady is a loaded one in Quebec, whose concrete structures have been known to crack, crumble and even collapse on occasion.

Some of those adjectives could be applied to certain points of Marois' career — an up-and-down tale that has seen ambitious legislative achievements interspersed with painful personal defeats.

Marois' career as a member of the legislature began in 1981, when she was elected to office just 11 days after giving birth to her third child.

She took her first stab at the PQ leadership four years later, ultimately losing to Pierre Marc Johnson.

Her name surfaced as a possible leadership candidate in 1995, but she didn't run against Lucien Bouchard. She was expected to make a run in 2001, but backed out when she was unceremoniously abandoned by her main ally — and current rival — Francois Legault.

When she ran in 2005, she finished second to Andre Boisclair.

A disastrous performance by the PQ in the 2007 election presented Marois with yet another opportunity to become leader, a contest she won without opposition.

In the three decades leading to that triumph, Marois served in most senior cabinet positions, including both health and finance.

Her crowning achievement from these years, according to Trudel, was her work in 1997 to set up Quebec's subsidized daycare program when she was the minister responsible for families.

It was seen by some as so successful that the federal Liberals — not usually big fans of the PQ — used the Quebec model as the basis for their proposed $5-a-day national program. They were voted out of office in 2006, before the plan could be implemented.

A recent Universite de Sherbrooke study estimated the program had allowed the Quebec economy to grow by $5 billion by allowing 70,000 mothers to rejoin the workforce.

Marois' approach to this issue, as with so many others, was heavily influenced by her experience as a working mother, said Trudel, now a professor at Quebec's school for public administration.

"She knew what she was talking about. She understood the concerns of parents with young children," he said.

"Her interventions (at cabinet) convinced us of the necessity of not simply creating daycare centres but centres of early childhood education."

Marois, however, has had limited success appealing to the average voter.

She has often been characterized as aloof and almost aristocratic in her public demeanour — this despite her working-class roots.

Her father, a mechanic in a small town near Quebec City, never finished high school. Marois had to put herself through university on a scholarship.

But she now lives on a 41-acre estate just west of Montreal with her husband Claude Blanchet, the former head of the Quebec government's investment arm.

Her reputation for high living earned her merciless ridicule in 1999 when it emerged that as health minister she spruced up her Quebec City office at a cost of $800,000 to taxpayers.

The new amenities included an expensive silent-flush toilet.

That Marois had just ordered a round of severe cuts to the health-care system, at a time of deficit reduction, only made matters worse.

It might be somewhat ironic, then, that Marois' political fates are now tied to those of Quebec's student movement, with its egalitarian ideals and street politics.

The PQ leader, along with her caucus, has recently stopped wearing the red felt square patch that has become the symbol of the protest against a proposed tuition hike.

But her opponents clearly hope to make her wear it, figuratively speaking, throughout the election.

The Liberals have already run an ad showing Marois at a spring protest. The ad, which carried the headline, "These women who inspire us," begins with images of Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel, before showing Marois banging a pot during a march.

"By behaving like that, she's demonstrated that she doesn't have what it takes to be premier," Premier Jean Charest told Liberal party supporters in May.

Marois claimed it was Charest who was out of touch. She noted that the vast majority of protesters, and protests, had been peaceful and she castigated the premier for painting them all as radical.

"These delinquents don't have anything to do with Quebec's youth," Marois said.

"We can either be for or against the tuition hike, but we can't be against Quebec's youth."