The winner and loser in the Quebec debate

Québec solidaire leader Françoise David emerged as a winner, and a thorn in the PQ’s side
Quebec Solidaire leader Francoise David and ADQ leader Francois Legault shake hands while PQ leader Pauline Marois shakes hands with Liberal leader Philippe Couillard, left to right, prior to the leaders’ debate Thursday, Thursday, March 20, 2014 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Françoise David won Thursday’s Quebec election campaign debate.

Don’t know her? If you live outside Quebec, I don’t blame you. David is leader of Québec solidaire, the upstart left wing party whose support starts and mostly ends on the Island of Montreal. Actually, David is the co-leader: Quebec solidaire has two, and one elected member of the national assembly who used to be co-leader, but who now mostly just rails against tuition hikes and the Apartheid state of Israel. Quebec solidaire is just the type of ideology-first party that has exactly zero chance of forming a government in the coming Quebec election.

Which is a shame, because David was excellent. As in 2012, she was the collective conscience of the debate, casually denouncing the cuts to health care under successive Parti Québécois and Liberal governments, railing against the evils of oil exploration and the excesses of the Parti Québécois so-called Quebec values charter—which would bar women wearing religious garb from Quebec’s public service.

“The women of my generation fought so hard for the right to work. I don’t want that to happen to other women,” she said at one point. That all three other leaders—the PQ’s Pauline Marois, the CAQ’s François Legault and Liberal Philippe Couillard­—hardly attacked her during the otherwise tedious two-hour cat fight that was tonight’s debate speaks volumes about David’s place in Quebec’s electoral psyche.

But again: David isn’t going to become premier, and so the game is less about how much support she may have gained than which party is most hurt by that gain. As in 2012, the answer is the Parti Québécois.

Quebec solidaire has been an electoral thorn for the PQ even before the governing party recruited star candidate (and noted capitalist overlord) Pierre Karl Péladeau. David herself won her seat in 2012 in Gouin, a Montreal riding held by the PQ since 1976. You need only look to the recent blog postings of Péquiste minister Jean-François Lisée, who frothily denounced Quebec solidaire five times in the last nine days, to realize the latter’s threat to the PQ in the current election campaign. A solid David is exactly what the PQ didn’t need, but it’s what we got.

Couillard, Marois and Legault were as status quo punchy as you’d expect. Couillard, a picture of near-lobotomized calm throughout, gamely dodged the worst of the corruption issue, his party’s Achilles Heel. Legault talked taxes and economy—and had a sound bite-worthy quip to Marois about how you can’t make something (electricity in this case) for nine cents, sell it for four and expect to make a profit. Marois, in the unenviable position of having to defend a hamstringed minority government and the sack of feuding cats that is her caucus, pushed hard on the charter. It’s her party’s last, ugliest card.

But David won. And that hurts Marois more than anyone else.