MONTREAL - It's a unique campaign message: A man who aspires to be premier of Quebec has compared the province's young people, unfavourably, to Asian kids.
Francois Legault says he doesn't regret suggesting this week that young Quebecers are more interested in living "the good life" and could learn a thing or two from their harder-working Asian counterparts.
In fact, Legault dug in his heels Tuesday.
"I'm sticking to it," he told reporters. "Right now in Quebec, we don't value education and effort as much as we should."
The leader of the new Coalition party first waded into the subject during a chat with an 85-year-old man during a campaign stop a day earlier. The man had lamented the work ethic of today's youth, and Legault eagerly concurred.
Legault mused that things were different in Asia where, he said, parents want their kids to become engineers and actually need to stop them from studying at night because they nearly work themselves sick. He said if people in Asia keep working so hard while young Quebecers just want "the good life," our society is in trouble.
He elaborated on those remarks Tuesday.
"If you have kids they'll tell you (the Asian students) are always first in class,'' Legault said. ''One of my sons was telling me, 'Yes, but they have no life.'
"There's maybe an extreme there but, here, in some cases we're a little bit at the other extreme."
He said he doesn't blame young Quebecers at all. He said he blames older Quebecers, and parents, for not transmitting the values of hard work to youth.
Legault's remarks were ridiculed by opponents who questioned their basis in reality. He quickly became an object of online scorn. ''La belle vie,'' the French phrase for ''the good life,'' became a trending topic on Twitter. One person noted that he, Legault, had lived with his parents until age 30. Others pulled out an old complaint he'd made that one of his own children had woken up past 2 p.m.
Some people wound up debating the substance of his point.
A paper by an economist at the University of California at San Diego actually delved last year into the sensitive issue of study habits by ethnicity in the United States.
Using federal statistics from the American Time Use Survey, Valerie Ramey concluded that Asian-American high school students averaged 13 hours of study per week over the entire calendar year — compared with 5.5 hours for white students, and even less for other students.
But Quebec students have, for their part, fared extremely well in math tests and, to a lesser extent, in science as well.
In the Programme for International Student Assessment of 15-year-olds from 65 countries, Quebecers' math scores were among the best in the world, trailing only China, Singapore and South Korea and better than any other Canadian province. In science, Quebec was middle-of-the-pack within Canada but still higher than all but nine countries.
There is one obvious dark spot in Quebec's education system: the dropout rate. Statistics Canada said Quebec had the highest average high-school dropout rate of any province between 2007 and 2010.
Citing those high dropout figures, Legault also touted the achievement of Jews: "It doesn't make sense that right now, for example, in the Jewish community we have something like 10 schools in Quebec (where) the dropout rate is under one per cent.... The same thing in Finland — it's less than one per cent."
The comments from Legault arrived in a charged political atmosphere.
Students at universities and colleges are voting this week on whether to end six-month boycotts. The term "la belle vie" has become famous as the turn of phrase used by a tabloid columnist to deride protesters at the height of the unrest last spring.
The tuition debate has also featured questions about productivity, and whether higher fees might steer students away from social studies into the hard sciences. Legault appeared to be pressing all those themes, in the heat of an election campaign.
His latest remarks coincided with the release of a report from a federal panel that proposed doubling the number of high-achieving international students admitted into Canada, from the current 239,000, within 10 years.
The report by the Advisory Panel on Canada's International Education Strategy suggested creating 8,000 scholarships for top foreign undergraduates and it touted the positive influence those students might have in Canada.
But opponents said Legault was simply peddling junk populism.
Jean Charest, the Liberal premier, called it a symptom of a greater problem with Legault's party. He accused it of pandering to stereotypes, without offering substantive policies.
"It's frankly well beneath what we would expect from a person in public life," Charest told reporters. "Quebecers are a working people. We are workers. We do very great things and the young people also."
He compared the remark to what he called Legault's simplistic take on Quebec's CEGEP system — the two-year pre-university system — which the Coalition leader once famously dismissed as a great place to learn to smoke dope.
Legault's new Coalition party is now involved in a three-way election race.
Recent polls placed the Parti Quebecois in the lead, while the governing Liberals appeared in serious danger because of poor support among francophones, who form the bulk of voters in the vast majority of Quebec ridings.
The Liberals are apparently even in trouble in Charest's fiefdom. An old foe of Charest's is now thinking of challenging him in his riding.
Marc Bellemare told Montreal Le Devoir he might run as an Independent in Sherbrooke, which Charest has represented in the legislature since 1998.
Bellemare is a former Charest cabinet minister who crossed swords with the premier a few years ago when he made scathing allegations that Liberal party fundraisers influenced the selection of judges.
The two men sued each other over the issue before eventually deciding to drop the legal proceedings.
But Bellemare's threat has prompted some of Charest's opponents, and media observers, to warn that such a ploy would actually backfire — and help Charest get re-elected.
One recent poll suggested Charest was trailing Parti Quebecois candidate Serge Cardin, a longtime Bloc Quebecois MP in the riding, by 15 percentage points.
Another candidate in the race could simply split the anti-Charest vote, some say.
Bellemare says he might not run if he is convinced Cardin can beat Charest.
He has until Saturday afternoon to confirm his candidacy.
Bellemare resigned in 2004 after the Quebec Liberals failed to make good on an election promise to kill the province's no-fault insurance law — something he had passionately lobbied Quebec governments for since 1994.
-With files from Stephanie Marin and Andy Blatchford