MONTREAL - The man who hopes to shake up Quebec politics was a passionate participant in the very debate he now says he wants to stamp out.
Francois Legault, a former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister, was a vocal crusader for Quebec independence until two years ago. But these days he stresses that talk of another sovereignty referendum is exactly what the province must veer away from.
Legault, who was a high-profile Pequiste under former premiers Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, is at the helm of a popular new political party with a vision that runs against some key principles he recently stood for.
He defended his switch Monday, saying he never viewed independence as an end in itself but as a vehicle towards a happy, economically prosperous, culturally secure Quebec. He says he still believes in those goals and will drive toward them in his new political machine.
His new Coalition For Quebec's Future, which was only launched Monday, already sits atop public-opinion polls.
But legault's old allies are taking shots at his credibility. They say the man hoping to govern Quebec sounds little like the Legault they know.
PQ leader Pauline Marois, who sat in cabinet with Legault, recalled Monday how he tabled a mock budget in 2005 for Quebec's first year of independence and how he declared it ungovernable as a province of Canada.
Marois also recounted how Legault pushed Landry — the PQ's leader at the time and an ardent sovereigntist himself — because he didn't go far enough on the national question.
"It's pretty amazing that he's made a 360-degree turn," Marois said, in a geometrically awkward but politically incisive take on Legault's about-face on independence.
One political analyst, who advised Legault late last year as he developed a strategy for his planned party, said he was in "total agreement" with the idea of not defining it federalist or sovereigntist.
But even he thinks Legault went a step too far by completely ignoring the Quebec-Canada issue in his platform.
"I thought we went too far in the total evacuation of what I call a road map to guide Quebec within Canada," said Christian Dufour, who teaches politics at Quebec's school for public administration.
"We have to remain realistic: Quebec is in Canada."
He said the issue will inevitably flare up and he warned that Legault is courting trouble by avoiding it now.
In fact, it's one of the main reasons why Dufour quit Legault's team in January, after only a few months as part of his inner circle.
"I'm still positive about the initiative," said Dufour, who was one of about two dozen political players invited to Legault's home in September 2010 to discuss his idea to form a party.
"He's a positive guy, he's a guy of action and he's a guy who's coming back (to politics) because he sees a problem — as if Quebec has broken down."
Legault, 54, was raised in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, a suburb on the western tip of the Island of Montreal.
He became a successful businessman and co-founded the Air Transat airline 24 years ago.
He was lured into politics by Bouchard and won his first election in 1998. Before leaving politics in 2009, he spent several years in cabinet, including a stint as education minister.
One political expert, who also attended that initial gathering at Legault's house but declined an offer to join the initiative, predicts the party's ambiguous position on federalism will succeed in the short term.
"There's an ambivalence that persists (in Legault's discourse) ... but this ambivalence is shared by lots of Quebecers," said Jean-Herman Guay, a political scientist for the Universite de Sherbrooke.
"He's saying the right things at a time when Quebecers want to hear them."
But Guay warned that while the timing might be right at the moment, the volatility of the Quebec electorate could create a dramatic shift a few years down the road.