09/06/2012 12:01 EDT | Updated 11/06/2012 05:12 EST

Pauline Marois Is More Quebec's Prisoner Than its Leader

Quebec has had both a brilliant and a thoroughly contemporary, as well as a cautionary election. It is brilliant because it has exposed the failure of the Quebec political class to inspire any public confidence.

The government was humdrum, over-indulged the striking students, and rushed the election to get it done before the unflattering report on government skullduggery in the construction industry comes in. The only Quebec leaders who can be elected almost indefinitely are galvanizing personalities with programs that are replete with gestures to the factions but who consistently govern in a way that fosters economic growth while protecting the complex of prerogatives and cultural distinctiveness that French Quebeckers consider necessary to their unique condition as the only French-speaking jurisdiction in North America above the level of a municipality. Maurice Duplessis, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau, and Sir Jean-Lomer Gouin, with five, four, and four terms, respectively, were the champions of this category.

The Quebec Liberals, because they normally have almost all the non-French and almost all the militant federalist francophones, each traditionally about 20 per cent of Quebec's voters, win most elections and can win them with leaders who don't have much impact on the popular imagination, but are surpassingly clever tacticians, French-Canadian Mackenzie Kings.

Robert Bourassa and Jean Charest have been the chief exemplars of this group, and both ran out of steam when the federalist part of their coalition fragmented. Bourassa was defeated in 1976 when a renascent Union Nationale split the federalist vote because of English outrage at coercive language legislation, and Charest lost this week, much more narrowly, because the Coalition pour l'Avenir du Quebec (Coalition for Quebec's Future-CAQ), exploited voter impatience with the corruption and bureaucratic confusion of the Charest Liberals.

The brilliance of the result is in the rejection of the government without any real endorsement of the Parti Quebecois or its program. The CAQ took just enough votes to defeat the government, but not so many as to give the PQ a clear mandate, and not enough to make itself a permanent force in Quebec. The only third party that has muscled itself into government and alternate government for any length of time is the Parti Quebecois, as it replaced the previous nationalist party, Duplessis' old Union Nationale, after it had become insufficiently nationalistic.

The Union Nationale itself wasn't really a third party -- it was the Quebec Conservative Party, to which Duplessis added some dissident Liberals. Duplessis and his most assiduous disciple, Daniel Johnson, managed to get the conservatives and nationalists, each about 20 per cent of the electorate, to vote together, but their successors were too conservative for the nationalists and the party disappeared.

The Bloc Populaire arose during the war as a more nationalistic option than the Union Nationale, but Duplessis smeared them as fascist sympathizers and they vanished after the 1944 election. The Quebec Liberals were not nearly surpassed by the CAQ, as the federal Liberals were last year by the NDP, and there is no need to consider merging the two parties.

Thus have the voters, and Quebec is often the most subtle and artistic electorate in Canada, which is why French-Canadians, despite their minority status, exercised such an inordinate influence on the government of Canada with bilingual Quebec prime ministers for over 60 years between Laurier and Paul Martin (1896-2006), and virtual Quebec co-prime ministers in the 27 years of King and Pearson, rejected the government without giving any mandate to the separatists, or durably fragmenting the two-party system. The Liberals retained 30 per cent of the vote, to 31 per cent for the PQ, and 26 per cent for the CAQ, and only about 8 per cent for the hard-line separatist Quebec Solidaire.

So the apparent, emergent premier, the desperately unimpressive Pauline Marois, a bag lady where some distinguished statesmen have preceded her, is, politically speaking, a prisoner in her own body. She tried to finesse the issue of a referendum, and PQ referenda are just trick questions inviting Quebeckers to retain all the benefits of being in Canada while exchanging embassies with the world and enjoying the perquisites and bully psycho-boost of sovereignty. Now, the PQ barely squeezed ahead of the Liberals, in votes and parliamentary strength, while fudging whether they would even hold a referendum on an ambiguous question. This is a cruel, vegetative state for Ms. Marois, a strident separatist.

The Liberals and CAQ are anti-separatist parties, (though the CAQ leader, Francois Legault, is an ex-PQ minister and could not be relied on as a permanent fixture on the federalist ramparts). The outright separatist vote was probably not more than 15 per cent, and when combined with the eat-and-retain the cake constitutional faction, so representative of the modern Quebec dilemma, the apparently sovereigntist total is not over the 40 per cent that voted "yes" on the first referendum in 1980. The Quebec dilemma is the old Yvan Deschamps spoof of the Quebecois who wants "an independent Quebec in a strong Canada."

The perennial question "What does Quebec want" is best answered by the desire to have a collapsed birthrate and a rising share of the total Canadian population, an immense public sector to give all Quebecois white collar executive jobs, and low taxes as if such a gargantuan government would be paid for permanently by Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario, the Canadian currency, passport, social programs and transfer payments, and completely unfettered national independence. It is a fable not yet generally declared to be a fable. This brilliant election changed governments without breaking any furniture or burning any bridges.

It was a contemporary election because it emulated the last British and French elections: the British because all parties were defeated, and the French because the ostensible winner is completely unqualified and is almost certain to be incompetent. Even keeping everything to scale, Charest is Gordon Brown, Legault is Nick Clegg, and Marois is much less than David Cameron; she is a less urbane Francois Hollande in drag. But as all of the Quebec leaders were effectively rejected, Marois, unlike French President Hollande, will not be riveted on the back of the jurisdiction for five years.

And it is a cautionary election because the outbreak of violence that killed a bystander as Ms. Marois addressed her supporters, and might have been intended for her, could portend that Quebec cannot go on forever acting out its frustration at not being able to square the circle and have all the above enumerated goals at once by squeezing cultural minorities. Either Quebec is a place of freedom of expression, as proclaimed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the Atlantic Charter agreed in Newfoundland in 1941, and solemnized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 and in the principal state papers of Canada, or it is not.

Continuously irritating the local representatives of the 90 per cent majority English-language group of North America above the Rio Grande, and of almost 20 per cent of the population of Quebec, who have enjoyed an official status in Quebec since the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, and plumbing ever deeper depths of absurdity and pettifogging oppression, could lead to more violence.

When a bomb went off at the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969, the founder of the Parti Quebecois, Rene Levesque, regretted it, but said it was the result of frustrations. The French-Canadians don't have a monopoly on that sensation, and should not under-estimate their talent for provoking the same feeling in others.

Withal, the best course, and as I write it may not be too late, whomever is chosen as the new Quebec Liberal leader should propose a coalition to Legault and the CAQ, and if accepted (and it's the only look at government the CAQ will have), Charest should recommend his successor to the lieutenant governor as the new premier.

And Jean Charest has announced his retirement as Liberal leader, but after the proverbial decent interval, he could be back, as federal Conservative leader. Stephen Harper needs one. Charest has performed that role before, ably, and he is a capable and even a somewhat popular politician. Old Quebec politicians, like Israeli politicians and French generals, go on forever. Duplessis, Johnson, Levesque, and Bourassa all made spectacular come-backs. So could Charest. Marois and Legault will have gone to the dust-bin of history in five years.