MONTREAL - The premier of Quebec is refusing to condemn anti-immigrant remarks made against one of his opponents.

Liberal Leader Jean Charest, campaigning for re-election, was asked twice at a news conference Thursday about comments made against a Parti Quebecois candidate with Algerian roots.

When he skirted the topic the first time, another reporter asked Charest why he had avoided criticizing the remarks from Saguenay mayor Jean Tremblay.

In his reply, Charest declined to take sides.

"I'm not campaigning against Jean Tremblay or for Jean Tremblay," Charest replied. "This political campaign is about the choice Quebecers will have on the 4th of September between (PQ Leader Pauline) Marois, (Coalition party Leader Francois) Legault and myself."

Those other leaders have strongly condemned the remarks from Tremblay — who in several media interviews joked that he couldn't pronounce the name of Djemila Benhabib and said he didn't like "these people" from Algeria coming here to impose their rules.

The spat stems from a debate during the election, which has seen the PQ use national identity as a wedge issue. The PQ has proposed a Charter of Secularism and the mayor, who is fighting to keep prayers at council meetings, is unhappy with parts of the plan.

Other Liberal candidates also avoided criticizing Tremblay.

The party has traditionally counted on huge support from minorities in the province. While that support does not appear to have dropped in recent polls, the party is struggling amongst the francophone electorate across the province.

When Charest was first asked about the mayor's comments, he turned his answer into an attack on the PQ: "What started this debate?" he said. Charest criticized Benhabib for her personal belief that the crucifix should be removed from the legislature — although she has said she will support the PQ policy that it remain.

"The reality of Quebec is that the church did play an important role during 350 years of our history and what, we're going to pretend that didn't happen and start you know walking the pages backwards? I don't think so," Charest added.

"If there's one political party who believes in that inclusiveness, we're it, that's what we defended from day one."

The Catholic church, for its part, appeared more willing to condemn Tremblay's remarks.

"If Mayor Tremblay wants to be a credible participant in the debate on secularism in Quebec, he should change his tone and apologize," said Jasmin Lemieux-Lefebvre, in a message from his personal Twitter account.

The assembly of Quebec's Catholic bishops issued a more formal statement, asking people to debate election issues calmly and respectfully.

The PQ's Charter of Secularism would limit overt religious symbols in public institutions — including the kippah, the turban and the hijab. That policy does not apply to Christmas trees and crucifixes. But it would restrict prayer at civic meetings.

That, and Benhabib's musings about the crucifix, are what made Tremblay angry.

"I don't like that these people come here and try to impose their rules,'' the mayor said in an interview with Montreal radio station 98.5 FM. He repeated the remarks in various media interviews over the course of the day Wednesday.

"They're going to make our culture and religion disappear... We pushover French-Canadians are going to let someone who's coming here from Algeria dictate to us how to behave, how to respect our culture? We can't even pronounce her name.''

— with files by Tara Brockwell

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  • Jean Charest Facts

    Here's a look at Jean Charest's life and career.

  • Education

    Law degree from Universite de Sherbrooke.

  • Political career

    Elected as Conservative MP for Sherbrooke in 1984 and served there until 1998; became youngest federal minister in Canadian history in 1986, as minister for youth, but had to resign in 1990 after improperly calling a judge about a case; returned to cabinet as environment minister in 1991; deputy prime minister from June 25, 1993, until Nov. 3, 1993; leader of federal Progressive Conservative party from 1993 to 1998; became leader of Quebec Liberal party in 1998 and Quebec premier in 2003. Re-elected with minority government in 2007 and majority in 2008. He resigned as leader of the Quebec Liberals in 2012 after losing to the PQ in the provincial election.

  • Personal

    Married, with three grown children.

  • Professional career

    Admitted to Quebec bar in 1981.