Jean Claude Labrecque’s latest film, A hauteur d’homme, is about Bernard Landry campaigning during the Quebec election last April. A few weeks before the election, the PQ was very confident that it would become the first Quebec government in 70 years to win three elections in a row. Then suddenly the wall crashed on Landry and his crew and the result was what we know. Quebec’s foremost “documentarist” reflects, in this beautiful film on the sadness of politics, on the cynicism of the media, on the drift of liberal democracy.
Since its launch, the documentary has triggered many debates, especially because it shows how some of the mainstream press (particularly The Globe and Mail, La Presse and Radio-Canada) went after the PQ like vultures around a wounded rabbit. Landry and some of the PQ heavyweights think, with some reason, that this was the cause of their demise. They also blame the population for “not having understood”, for being lukewarm over the sovereignty project, for accepting too easily the lies of the “infotainment” system. In other words, “It’s not our fault, it’s them.” It reminds me of an old Bertolt Brecht joke: “When there is a problem between the Party and the people, the solution is fairly simple. Elect a new people.”
The reality is that the electoral demise of the PQ was not accidental, situational nor technical. It is crazy to blame the mainstream media, all controlled by the big pro-federalist establishment or directly by the federal government. If anything, they simply have done their job. Quebecs bourgeoisie, except a few loose cannons, have always fought the PQ, which it has perceived as a left-of-centre, dangerously pro-social democrat Party. It has always opposed the independence project because it thought it would be destabilizing, opening unknown political territories, motivating the left and the social movements. Jacques Parizeau who was anything but a fool saw it clearly and tried for many years before and after the PQ push to power to create a “state bourgeoisie,” based on a complex alliance of the public sector (Hydro Quebec et al), new financial instruments (the Caisse de depÃ´ts et de placements) and nationalized enterprises. This project was at the same time the apotheosis of the revolution tranquille and the beginning of a new configuration of forces supposed to lead, in Parizeau’s eyes, to independence. That project was of course clearly opposed by all establishment forces.
In 1985, after the defeat of the PQ, the second generation of its leadership started to backtrack. They understood that this dream was never going to work, that they should rather hold on to power to be a “good government.” Parizeau was ousted and many of the historical founders dropped out of politics. Later on, Bernard Landry himself embarked on a crusade to support NAFTA, thinking that it would be wise to appear as “mainstream, responsible” politicians. They also thought it would be clever to play the game on the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, that is, siding with the U.S. against Canada would facilitate the breakdown or the weakening of the federal state.
The nationalists then courted Brian Mulroney who put Lucien Bouchard in the cabinet as a go-between between the federal government and the “reformed” pÃ©quistes. By that time, the Party had put social democracy behind it.
But that deal was broken by the collapse of the Meech Lake agreement back in 1991 when the Liberal party and its allies in different provinces sabotaged what it had perceived as too much of a concession to the Quebecois. Shortly after, Bouchard abandoned Mulroney and turned towards the PQ, preparing the next round. The Bloc QuÃ©bÃ©cois succeeded in electing a large number of MPs in 1994, participating in the destruction of the Conservative Party. Later, the PQ under the born-again Parizeau won the provincial elections and launched the referendum. But again the big establishment was able to come back and win : the pÃ©quistes could only celebrate the fact that they had 49 per cent voting Yes to their project, denying the defeat.
For the second time in two decades, the grand project was killed. One fundamental reason, and it remains hidden behind Parizeau’s infamous words against immigrants on the night of the defeat, was that the PQ did not even start to think about the new demographic and social reality of Quebec. The nationalist project simply was bankrupt in the eyes of the large immigrant working class, now forming something like 20 per cent of Montreal’s population. It also failed to trigger a massive mobilization of Quebecois francophone youth and women, in particular, who felt ambiguous in front of the PQ’s track record as a “good government.” It was easy for Parizeau to blame immigrants, but the reality is that 40 per cent of the francophones pure-laine voted No.
After the referendum defeat, Bouchard took control, with Bernard Landry as his right-hand man. He turned to the usual tactic and tried to transform the PQ into a neo-Conservative Party. An important part of the deputation elected in 1997 came from small towns and the semi-rural elite, attracted by the PQ as a site of power rather than a project of transformation. Bouchard left the ship after alienating everyone else, including the trade union establishment that had always supported the PQ. Then, Bernard Landry took over after a leadership non-campaign, again avoiding hard debates and refusing to take stock.. “We’ll be a good government and at a later stage, well have another referendum.”
Pressed by the renewal of the social movements, Landry in the last year changed course from Bouchard’s hard neo-liberalism and turned back to a mild agenda of reform. The famous $5-a-day day care was part of this, in fact inspired by Finance Minister Pauline Marois, who somehow tried to push the Party back to its roots. By that time however, large parts of the population, not to mention the social movements, remained unconvinced. In April, the Liberal Party won not because it had more votes than the last time around, but basically because over 500,000 citizens did not vote for the PQ. Jean Claude Labreque’s documentary shows how various wise guys and spin-doctors tried desperately to advise Landry on how to win the election without suggesting anything! “Please don’t talk about issues! Remain calm!”
What is next? Landry who had announced that he would leave office has now decided to keep on. He believes, and many in the PQ establishment are of the opinion that, “we will do the trick another time,” that the neo-cons around Jean Charest will alienate the population with their right-wing ideology and dumping of the revolution tranquille. That in three or four years, the PQ will run high again. But two main contending groups in the PQ contest that soft approach. A new younger “moderate” group — in fact, conservatives — wants to shift to the right, undermine the reactionary ADQ (which got 18 per cent of the vote in April) and return to what Bouchard had proposed — a “grand nationalist alliance,” a born-again Union Nationale.
On the left, Pauline Marois and others are suggesting a return to the original roots of the social-national alliance of the 1970s, to focus on youth and women, to open a new dialogue with social movements. Most probably, in the short term, this debate is going to weaken the PQ rather than kick-start it and it will destroy Bernard Landry’s dream to have another shot at it sooner rather than later. The PQ right wing will be unable, at least on the immediate horizon, to contest the terrain of the neo-cons in power because fundamentally their project is too similar. The PQ left will need a hard look at itself, with an enormous amount of modesty and self-criticism, to reinvent itself and create a popular wave. In the meantime, the real hard right will prevail, I’m afraid, for quite some time. Unless we, on the left, do something about it. But on this, we will talk another time.
Jean Claude Labrecque’s film will be released in Quebec theatres and will be broadcast on Radio-Canada on September 14.
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