MONTREAL - Canada's likely sparring partner in the next national unity debate carries some contradictions into the ring — as a woman of humble roots with a reputation for high living, and as a supposed consensus-builder whose election platform was written to please her party's militant wing.
One thing her fans and foes won't dispute is her level of experience: Pauline Marois has held 15 cabinet roles, handled the biggest departments, and launched her first bid for her party's leadership more than a quarter-century ago.
Marois, 63, is now the leading contender for the province's top job, with opinion polls indicating her Parti Quebecois is poised to KO Premier Jean Charest's Liberals after nine years in power.
She would come into the job with proposals that take a harder line on language and culture than her predecessors and a desire to plunge the country into another independence battle if the timing ever seems right for a referendum.
"I want to tell Quebecers that are listening: if you want to get back to the goal of creating a country, only a majority government can do it, a sovereigntist government of the Parti Quebecois,'' Marois said at a news conference recently.
Marois has a reputation for tenacity.
She's been dubbed "The Concrete Lady" after withstanding a revolt in her party last year that threatened to push her out. She refused to go.
She won the party leadership in 2007, achieving a goal she'd set when still a political neophyte.
Marois came in a distant second to Pierre Marc Johnson in her first bid in 1985, a contest she fought while pregnant with her last child. In 2001, she withdrew from the race when her main supporter, then PQ stalwart Francois Legault, dumped her.
In an ironic twist, he's now one of her main rivals in the election as leader of the new Coalition party.
She lost to Andre Boisclair in 2005 as the party embraced a more youthful candidate. She resigned from the legislature. Boisclair, however, led the PQ to its worst defeat ever in the 2007 and quit. Marois came back to pick up the pieces of the shattered party and was acclaimed.
When she returned, she tried to impose a rigorous discipline on the often squabbling PQ, which met with mixed results when the impatience of the hardliners clashed with more moderate members who signed on to her go-slow approach to achieving sovereignty.
Despite infighting and losing several key members in one tempest, including Lisette Lapointe, the wife of former premier Jacques Parizeau, Marois survived.
"She has a steel backbone," says Jean-Francois Lisee, a former journalist and one of her star candidates.
"We didn't know that about her before ... and maybe she didn't know about that. But it's become very clear and that's how she became a leader."
But Marois, who is said to take long walks and consult a book of Zen philosophy to maintain her unflappable nature, has been known to bend that steel spine.
Marois faced a revolt when she backed a bill by one of her members to shield the Quebec City arena project, accused of breaking public-tendering rules, from any legal challenge.
Three PQ stalwarts — Lapointe, Pierre Curzi and Louise Beaudoin — quit her caucus over the dispute. Their list of grievances varied. They viewed the bill as unethical. They expressed frustration that party members had no say in it.
And there was also criticism of Marois' approach to achieving independence. Those complaints only grew louder after another caucus member Jean-Martin Aussant, a former Morgan Stanley executive and rising PQ star, quit to start a new party devoted to planning a quick push for independence.
This unleashed a barrage of sniping against Marois' leadership and even suggestions that she should be replaced by Gilles Duceppe, who had recently quit as head of the Bloc Quebecois.
Marois waited out her opponents.
But to head off discontent she eventually went along with a proposal to allow citizen-initiated referendums. It's a strategy that she groped to explain during the election campaign but at the time of the revolt helped her keep her job.
She has also extended the olive branch to hardliners with tougher measures to protect the French language, which include limiting access to English-language junior colleges.
Holding a referendum is no easy feat.
Sovereigntists have already been defeated twice. With brief exceptions, including the early 1990s and the height of the federal sponsorship scandal a decade later, support for independence hasn't really budged much from a traditional level of 35 to 40 per cent.
One recent poll put it at 28 per cent.
But that doesn't stop Marois from saying she'd hold a referendum the day after she was elected premier if she thought she could win it.
That's the closest she's come to setting a date, preferring a strategy of whittling away at federal powers and picking scraps with Ottawa to boost support for the option.
"A referendum if necessary, at the moment it's necessary," was Marois' coy response in a recent campaign debate.
Opportunism is not the only quality that has been ascribed to her in the election.
Others have accused her of pandering to xenophobes because of her vow to crack down on language and culture.
Besides limiting access to junior colleges, she has vowed to tighten regulations requiring the use of French in the workplace and ban religious symbols from the public service. Her so-called secularism policy, however, does not extend to the Christian crucifix.
Marois says her the efforts are to protect Quebec's French language and culture.
Born to humble roots in St-Redempteur near Quebec City, Marois is one of five children born to her garage mechanic father and teacher mother.
She holds a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's in business administration but most of her life has been devoted to politics. She was a political aide to Jacques Parizeau, one of her former business professors, and chief of staff to Lise Payette in Rene Levesque's first PQ government before taking the plunge into elected politics herself in 1981.
She campaigned in the final weeks of her pregnancy with the third of her four children, winning her riding just 11 days after giving birth.
She went immediately into the cabinet after being named minister of state for the status of women that same year. It was the first of 15 ministerial titles she's held under a succession of PQ leaders. Besides running the three most powerful departments — health, education and finance — Marois was also deputy premier.
Among her most notable achievements are bringing in the province's $5-dollar-a-day day care system — since raised to $7 — and introducing school boards based on language, not religion.
She also helped craft Quebec's youth protection legislation, hailed at the time as the most progressive in North America.
"I spotted her as one of the best workhorses and results-oriented people around the table," says Lisee, who was an adviser to then-premiers Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau when Marois was in cabinet.
Lisee said Marois sought to open dialogues with the main players when she ran her departments in an era of severe belt-tightening and zero-deficit financing.
Her style contrasted with Jean Rochon, who ruffled feathers in the health department before she took over, and Jean Garon, who shook up the education ministry before she arrived.
"She again was a more conciliatory figure and fought very hard to keep her budget," Lisee said.
However, she bore the brunt of scorn heaped on the government for a weakened health-care system when she was brought in to reform it after deep budget cuts.
Dubbed Superwoman for her work ethic, she did juggle with her own political kryptonite, most notably the image that many held of her as an aloof woman with bourgeois tastes.
She was mocked when more than $800,000 in renovations were done to her offices in the 1990s, including the installation of a silent-flush toilet — dubbed the "stealth toilet" by critics.
Others pointed to her sprawling former home with millionaire husband Claude Blanchet near Montreal that was based on a French chateau. The couple has recently put it on the market and bought a downsized residence in Old Montreal.
Others note her fine-quality designer clothes.
A recent profile in the Quebec newsmagazine L'Actualite says she's dressed by the same person who clothes former governor general Michaelle Jean and Aline Chretien, and visits a hair salon to get coiffed every single morning.
The story explains that as a child Marois felt like she stuck out because her shoes weren't as nice as the other kids'; she now buys a new pair on every trip she takes.
But Payette dismisses the bourgeois image of Marois — who once zipped back and forth to the legislature in a purple Porsche — as "completely ridiculous."
Payette said family always came first for Marois and that sometimes she even stopped cabinet meetings to be home to cook supper for her brood.
"This is someone we imagine to be very complicated but she's very simple," Payette said. "When you go to dinner at her home, she cooks an enormous platter and puts it in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves."
However, she allowed that Marois has had to change somewhat as she has risen in a political life that is still a male-dominated playing field.
"It cost her some of what she is," Payette observed.
"Between the woman who put dinner on the table and the image she presents now, there are some things she's lost, not because she rejected it but because it was expected of her."
Marois was asked about that reputation Monday, during an end-of-campaign news conference. She was asked whether she felt that the daily exposure had helped her shake a snobbish reputation.
''I'm not a snob. I don't worry too much about that,'' she replied.
''I believe (this campaign) helped demystify the prejudice around me. And that's what it is — a prejudice.'
(With files from Jonathan Montpetit and Melanie Marquis)