POLITICS
10/02/2011 07:35 EDT | Updated 12/02/2011 05:12 EST

Meet Francois Legault, the man who wants to remake Quebec politics

LONGUEUIL, Que. - By the time Francois Legault took the stage at a bingo hall on Montreal's south shore, the room had filled to capacity with an overflow crowd waiting to hear from the man who promises a new Quebec.

The current wunderkind of Quebec politics raised his eyebrows in feigned surprise at the size of his audience.

"I just want to be sure," he said at a recent event in Longueuil.

"Bingo isn't here — it's on the other side."

Legault had no reason to be surprised.

A slew of recent polls suggest he could become the next premier of Quebec, and he is drawing crowds of more than 150 people at various stops of his cross-province tour.

But he's never been renowned for his oratory. For the moment, he doesn't even have a political party.

On paper, his Coalition for the Future of Quebec is nothing more than a group of political wanderers unsatisfied with the status quo.

It is obvious, though, that Legault's coalition intends to become a party in time for the next election.

The coalition's basic argument is that, after a 40-year stalemate in the battle over independence, Quebec politics needs to turn its sights to other, pressing economic issues.

It comes at a time when the governing Liberals steadfastly refuse to hold an inquiry into the construction industry, despite mounting evidence that the rot of corruption is worse than previously thought.

The Opposition Parti Quebecois, meanwhile, has been beset by infighting over the best way to achieve independence.

Tapping into widespread public disenchantment with politics, Legault has positioned himself as the vehicle of choice for those eager to break with debates of the past.

He is the lifelong independentiste who promises to shelve talk of independence for as long as he's in politics.

He is the former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister who says the Parti Quebecois has lost its way.

He professes to lean a little to the right on economic issues, and a little to the left on social ones.

He offers, in other words, a little something to everyone.

His message has found a receptive audience in a province whose politics has, for two generations, been sharply divided by the debate over Quebec nationhood and frequently glossed over other issues.

Denis Cote gave up a weeknight with his wife and two children to see Legault speak in Longueuil. He said it was the first time he has felt connected with a politician.

"Those in power, just like those in opposition, are closing their eyes and not listening to the population," said Cote, a 40-year-old human-resources manager who recently ended a lifetime of political apathy to join the coalition as a volunteer.

"I want to follow the coalition in order to listen to new ideas, to see more."

Legault is keeping Quebec's political class in a state of anxiety as he decides whether to turn his coalition into a formal political party.

He says his current tour of Quebec is part of a consultation process that will end with a detailed policy platform being released by the end of the year.

If he feels his ideas are still falling on deaf ears then, he says, he'll then enter the fray.

"Of course the positive reception I'm getting is helping me choose," he told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"People want change but I am very careful when I look at polls. I want people to know the concrete changes we propose before taking their decision."

The crowd in the Longueuil bingo hall was made up mostly of middle-aged white men. Among them were several local politicians, including at least two unsuccessful Conservative candidates from the last federal election.

They offered murmurs of approval, and even spontaneous applause, as Legault excoriated the province's handling of education, health-care, the economy and culture.

There is little that is uniquely innovative in Legault's proposals — many of the ideas would be quite familiar in places with a stronger history of conservative politics.

Among other things, he advocates abolishing school boards, health agencies, various union powers and, of course, red tape.

To hear Legault tell it, things were invariably better in the past and anything inefficient should be abolished.

The coalition, he tells his audience, is for people who want to see Quebec recapture a glory it lost at some point since the 1960s Quiet Revolution.

"You've felt it for several years: there is a moroseness in Quebec," he said. "There isn't the enthusiasm that I knew when I was young."

Legault's political genealogy is somewhat mixed.

He first rose to prominence as a businessman, having founded the Montreal-based airline Air Transat; he later became a top member of the social democratic PQ.

He served in a number of cabinet positions in the governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, and was touted as a potential PQ leader, before giving up his legislature seat in 2009.

He has been several different things in his professional life; just don't call him an ideologue.

"I never in my political life accepted to be described as being from the left or from the right," he said during the interview.

"I think that right now maybe we can say that for social issues I am more centre-left and for economic issues I am more centre-right."

Legault wants to be considered the ultimate pragmatist, insisting that all he truly he cares about is whether his ideas get implemented — not who gets to implement them.

The linchpin in his political vision is the education system. He says a vast overhaul would help solve problems as diverse as poverty and productivity.

He's made the head-turning pledge to raise teacher salaries by 20 per cent, at a cost of nearly $1 billion.

At the same time, he wants to see schools do more to foster entrepreneurship, which he considers something of a lost art in Quebec.

"Young people in Quebec have less desire to be entrepreneurs than young people from previous generations," he told the Longueuil crowd. "A society without entrepreneurs is a society that dies slowly."

Such ideas put the coalition on a collision course with the provincial Liberals, who have long been the preferred choice of the province's business elite.

Yet the Liberals have struggled to hit back at a figure who has so far opted to stay outside the realm of party politics.

It is clear, though, that Legault represents a threat to the three main political parties in the province.

On a recent trade visit to China, Premier Jean Charest spent almost as much time criticizing Legault's proposals as he did promoting new business deals.

That's a bad sign for the PQ, which risks getting displaced as the obvious alternative to the Liberals.

Some observers have suggested Legault has nothing to gain by entering the ring too soon.

Quebec's political class has become so thoroughly discredited in recent months that it only benefits Legault to stay apart from it, said political analyst Christian Dufour.

That, however, creates something of a catch-22 for Legault.

"As long he doesn't get involved he'll stay popular," said Dufour, who teaches politics at Quebec's school for public administration and who briefly toyed with the idea of joining the coalition last winter.

"The day that he does get involved, it is inevitable that he'll become less popular."

For the moment, Legault appears content to let the momentum build gradually by portraying himself as a new breed of politician.

After his speech in Longueuil, Legault spent nearly an hour-and-a-half answering questions from the public.

When he tried to end the event, there was chorus of cries calling for more time.

Legault smiled and agreed he would listen to everyone.