PQ plans to modernize but can't shake old habit of public infighting

MONTREAL — Its 2017 "rejuvenation" did nothing to avert last October's election disaster, but the Parti Quebecois says a new plan to modernize itself will be different than all previous attempts.

This time around, "everything is on the table," 32-year-old party president Gabrielle Lemieux said Wednesday — even the PQ name and logo. The only thing not up for discussion, she said in an interview, is the party's central purpose: making Quebec a country.

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But the future of the party of Rene Levesque seems more uncertain than ever. Catherine Fournier, a 26-year-old lauded as the future of the PQ, quit Monday to sit as an independent, burning bridges as she left.

"There are too many Quebecers who no longer listen to us," she said in an interview on the TVA network. "There is no room for renewal. And even if that happened, I don't think Quebecers would believe us."

Her departure left the PQ with the fewest seats of any party in the legislature, just nine out of 125. It also fed rumours she was plotting to form her own party, or had come under the spell of another big name in the sovereigntist movement, economist Jean-Martin Aussant, who tried and failed to win a Montreal riding for the PQ in October.

Fournier denies she wants to start a new sovereigntist party, and Aussant wrote on Facebook Wednesday that he did not "hypnotize" her. Her decision nonetheless triggered reflexes the PQ has become known for: infighting and public bickering.

Interim party leader Pascal Berube and Aussant got into a Twitter fight Tuesday, invoking past PQ leaders to challenge each other's sovereigntist credentials. Berube has since deleted the conversation.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault on Wednesday briefly waded into the politics of his former party. "I don't really want to get involved," he told reporters. "Obviously, there is a difficult situation because of sovereignty. People don't want to hear about sovereignty, but at the same time it's the main purpose of the party."

Lemieux, the party president, was reluctant to comment on why the PQ is more prone to public infighting than other parties. "I'm probably not the best person to explain the reasons, the causes, and the consequences of all that," she said.

But she was adamant the party's plan for a "new PQ" will make a difference. Delegates at an upcoming party convention March 23-24 in Trois-Rivieres, Que., will vote on the proposal to relaunch the party.

Lemieux said if it passes, the PQ will begin consultations on how to redefine its message, change how leaders are selected and implement other measures, such as ways to ensure parity between men and women candidates.

"This is the first time that we will be able to make changes that are that big," Lemieux said. But what's unclear is if the party is capable of changing.

Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, who ran unsuccessfully for the PQ in the October election, was tasked by former PQ leader Jean-Francois Lisee in 2016 to come up with a plan to "rejuvenate" the party.

He criss-crossed the province and produced a report in 2017 with 108 recommendations. But St-Pierre Plamondon, who now works at a law firm, wrote on Facebook Tuesday that his initiative was "sabotaged" by people inside the party.

He said Fournier was very involved in the project and "saw the numerous times the project was sabotaged ... the multiple efforts from the party to derail this effort by young people. Today, some of the authors of that sabotage are calling for the renewal of the PQ."

Aside from all the public squabbling, the PQ also has to confront political reality. The governing Coalition Avenir Quebec has taken votes from the PQ's centre and right-leaning flank, while Quebec solidaire has successfully positioned itself as the left-of-centre choice for progressive voters.

Lisee, in an upcoming book on the election loss, laments how the sovereigntist movement is divided. "The fragmentation of our forces is the best guarantee of success for our opponents. It's math," he writes. The title of his book translates roughly as 'Who Wants the End of the Parti Quebecois?'

Lost in the PQ's internal — and external — struggles is the fact that past PQ governments played a large role in shaping the modern Quebec state. It was the PQ that introduced subsidized daycare, for example, allowing a generation of women to enter the workforce.

The PQ under the late premier Bernard Landry had the vision to introduce tax credits to video game and other technology companies and is credited with helping to diversify Quebec's economy after the decline of the pulp and paper industry.

"It's important to remind ourselves of these things," Lemieux said. "And I think the steps we are putting together is a way to build on the strength of the past and at the same time, to radically rethink some other elements."

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