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Pauline Marois: Will A Mechanic's Daughter Lead Quebec To Independence?

Article illustrative image Partner logo Marois meets her supporters

MONTREAL - She’d been preparing for this day for 30 years. On September 4, Pauline Marois became Quebec’s first Prime Minister, though her victory wasn’t as clear-cut as she’d hoped.

As the leader of the Parti Quebecois (PQ), best known for its call for the independence of the French-speaking province, the 63-year-old told constituents during the campaign that she needed an outright majority in the Quebec parliament not to have her “hands tied” by Ottawa. She vowed to organize a third referendum on the issue (In 1980 and 1995, the independence vote lost, but was very close in the second referendum) with polls predicting a sure victory.

Worried voters did not give her the mandate she'd asked for, leaving her party with just 56 of the 125 parliamentary seats. The election looked a lot like a referendum against Jean Charest, the incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the Quebec Liberal Party. After nine years in power, and marred by corruption scandals and a social crisis in the spring, Charest used the threat of independence and the ensuing chaos it would bring during his campaign.

(The election made additional global headlines when a man burst into the venue where Marois was giving her victory speech, opening fire and killing one man. As he was being arrested, the gunman allegedly repeated twice in French with an English accent: "The Anglophones are waking up." It was the latest sign that the independence of Quebec is still a highly charged issue in the province.)

Marois has taken note of election results and turned toward a less divisive target for the eight million Quebecois (80% of whom are French speakers) “promoting Quebec’s interests,” by regaining control over some of the powers currently held in the Canadian capital of Ottawa.

To mark her distance with Canada's central government, she waited more than a month after her election to meet the country’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the first time. The meeting took place in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo and host of this year’s Francophone Summit, just before her first official visit to Paris.

When asked about role models, Marois praises the "calm confidence" of Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister and creator of the concept of sustainable development. Indeed, the Quebec leader too is known for her strong and stable presence. A working mother of four and grandmother of two, Marois is tenacious and assertive, but has always tried to avoid outbursts and bickering.

“Concrete lady”

The daughter of a mechanic and a “stay-at-home-worker,” Marois comes from a humble background. She studied social sciences first (later, she would create the first homeless services in Montreal and fight against inequalities) then moved on to business school where she learned her tight management of public finances.

She turned to politics to help “build a fairer and freer Quebec.” She became a Member of Parliament for the Parti Quebecois in 1981. Since then, she’s had 14 different ministerial jobs in different PQ governments, including health and social services, education and finance.

Between 2001 and 2003, as Deputy Prime Minister of Quebec and Minister of Finance, she made balancing the budget her mantra while giving tax breaks to the poorest. She also made changes to Quebec’s family policies, which have yet to be overturned, like creating centers for infants, affordable daycare and parental leave.

Marois had to fight her way to the top of her party. Twice, in 1985 and 2005, she failed to secure the leadership. She had to wait until 2007 and the party’s awful showing in general elections to finally become the PQ leader. But that didn’t stop attacks from different factions within the party. In 2011, she was called out on her “extreme authority” but didn't soften her approach, which landed her the nickname of “Concrete Lady.”

She doesn’t dismiss the name, admitting she has “a great ability to withstand storms.” Married to a businessman who made his fortune in real estate and known for her taste for designer clothes and jewelry, Marois has also been branded a “limousine liberal.”

But this year, the candidate chose a more sober style to keep critics at bay during the campaign. Politically, she describes herself as “a center-left progressive,” but never a socialist. As for feminism, she had openly said she wouldn’t become a feminist in 1979 when she was appointed minister of women’s issues, but admits she quickly became one on the job.

In the spring, when a student movement against higher tuition fees turned into a full-blown social crisis, she immediately sided with protesters. She canceled the fee hikes as soon as she took office. She now wants to overturn a tax on health care created by her predecessor, close Quebec’s only nuclear plant, increase taxes on the rich, further protect the French language and the public funding of political parties. She is moving fast on sensitive issues, hoping that her opponents won’t want to bring down her minority government just yet.

As for her deep belief that Quebec must become a “sovereign country,” she’ll have to use some of her calm tenaciousness to convince people who don't agree with her party on many other issues.

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