On Sunday, Radio-Canada televised a two-hour editorial-board style grilling of the federal party leaders in French — and set a new bar for election programming. In contrast with traditional debates, which often feature more shouting than substance, the “meet the press” format saw the politicians peppered with smart questions, eliciting some honest responses and even a few laughs. And it shone a spotlight on election priorities in Quebec, which is shaping up to be the key battleground in the current campaign.
The main takeaways? First, everyone’s French was surprisingly good, most noticeably Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s. You could almost hear the collective exhale of Tory partisans as Erin O’Toole deftly fielded questions, in contrast to more cringeworthy performances in 2019 by former leader Andrew Scheer. Francophone voters can genuinely look forward to the substance of the first French-language leaders’ debate this Thursday evening, instead of focusing on live-tweeting the Conservative leader’s language gaffes.
Second, the interviews actually featured six political leaders, not five. Quebec Premier François Legault wasn’t there in person, but he was the elephant in the room. A couple of days previously, he had issued his election list of “demands” for Quebec and pronounced the Liberal and NDP platforms “much more centrist” than those of their rivals, notably on the issue of health care. While Legault’s remarks could boost the Bloc Québécois, the Tories might actually gain the most by appearing to be a safe harbour for soft-nationalist votes, particularly in tight races with the Bloc around Quebec City.
Legault’s comments also prompted the Radio-Canada panel to ask Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet whether his party has become a “front” for Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec party, a charge Blanchet denied. They also asked whether provincial deals made with Ottawa, such as Quebec’s $6-billion share of federal daycare money, undermined the Bloc’s ultimate goal, Quebec independence. “So federalism works, then?” asked panellist Anne-Marie Dussault, to which Blanchet huffily responded that there was a difference between seeking powers bit by bit from Ottawa and inherently having all of them as a “true nation.”