Sunday, March 18, 2007

Red Quebec/ Blue Quebec

I've written a bit, in the context of the Herouxville norms, about the Montreal-vs-rural-regions divide in Quebec politics and in understandings of Quebecois identity. (I've also talked about it in an interview with L'Express that I now fear will feel dated and obvious by the time it sees print.) For the first time, that divide is shaping up as the centerpiece of an election.

But with little more than a week to go before Quebecers choose a government, a new dynamic fuelled by regional resentment and a blurring of the usual dividing lines has emerged, leaving even the most intrepid observer unwilling to attempt to predict the outcome.[...]

What the parties all need are committees to polish their crystal balls. While some ridings are two-way races, others are three-way tussles, and the two-way races don't involve the same parties in every region.

For example, on Montreal Island and in regions like Abitibi, the Outaouais and Saguenay-Lac St. Jean, the fight is principally between the Liberals and the Parti Quebecois. However, in the Chaudiere-Appalaches region south of Quebec City, the Liberals are battling it out with the ADQ, while in the Mauricie the fight is between the PQ and the ADQ.

"In general, we think it is a three-way race, but in reality it is several two-way races," explained pollster Jean-Marc Leger, who says Quebec is likely to end up with a minority government, although he can't say for sure which party is likely to form it.[...]

"I have never seen an election like it," said Lapierre, a veteran political organizer. "I'm astonished how Quebec is full of microclimates. When you look at the polls from a Montreal perspective, you don't get an accurate picture, because there are microclimates in each region of Quebec and the battle is different in each region."[...]

The dynamic is also fuelled by a growing divide between urban and rural Quebec.

Observers and pollsters alike say one factor behind the unexpected rise of Mario Dumont's ADQ is a protest vote by Quebecers outside Montreal, who feel the Liberals and the Parti Quebecois are disconnected from their lives and concerns, and have been taking them for granted.

"In the first place, they are voting against the government," Leger said. "They turned to the PQ but they are dissatisfied with Andre Boisclair's leadership and the possibility of a third referendum. So they have turned to ADQ.

"ADQ is a vote against; that is to say, that ADQ is a vote by the regions against Montreal."

Political scientist Guy Laforest, an ADQ supporter, said Boisclair and Charest are perceived as being too close to Montreal's elites. "Mr. Charest is seen as being part of the Westmount/Outremont/Sherbrooke politico-business elite. ... Mr. Boisclair is more connected to the media/cultural elite of the Plateau Mont Royal. Mr. Dumont appears more like a champion of the regions."[...]

Both Laforest and Leger point to the debate over the reasonable accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities as a turning point of the campaign.

"The debate on reasonable accommodation, that debate permitted Mario Dumont to exist," Leger said. "His positions were tied to the Quebec reality and succeeded in becoming credible."

The condescending attitude of Montrealers in the controversy over Herouxville's code of conduct for immigrants just fed disaffection in the regions, where there is little or no contact with other ethnic groups, he said.

It does seem to turn out that a cosmopolitan or internationalist elite consensus-- say, for free trade, or for the EU, or for immigration, or for multiculturalism-- eventually provokes a populist backlash from voters who, rightly, perceive that their concerns have been shut out of mainstream political discourse. In each case, I'm not on their side, and on a day-by-day basis I'm glad when a society's main parties close ranks around what I take to be the decent position. But the resulting dissatisfaction is the elctoral equivalent of low-hanging fruit or a ten-dollar bill on the sidewalk. Someone's going to pick it or pick it up; someone's going to make use of the resource. I wonder whether we can say anything general about the conditions under which that someone will be someone truly scary (e.g. Le Pen, Haider) (because the norms and taboos are so strong that only someone truly scary is willing to challenge them) or the conditions under which it'll be someone tolerably within liberal democratic bounds.

Charles Taylor has complained that we shouldn't call Mario Dumont the Jean-Marie Le Pen of Quebec. OK, fair enough; as far as I can tell Dumont is a fairly ordinary center-right populist, and he's well within the bounds of decent liberal democratic discourse. But the electoral market opening is the same, and for that matter is the same as Ross Perot's anti-trade campaigns: the populist backlash that always comes in response to that kind of bipartisan consensus on such issues, and always but always strikes urban elites as a complete out-of-nowhere surprise.

By the way, this elite-consensus model doesn't only have implications for the multiculturalist/ free trade neoliberals among us. It has implications for all forms of consociationalism and corporatism, too-- implications that are at least as strong, because those two models actualy rely on competing elites working together in one big cooperative venture (the grand coalition government, the union-corporate-ministry meetings to plan the whole economy) that eventually strike the populist imagination like a summit meeting between the Masons and the Trilateral Commission. The target for the backlash is that much more visible.

The attempt to shut out the electoral demand for some given set of policies may be something like the attempt to regulate away a market demand. The demand will find a way to express itself and be met; but the subsequent black-market entrepreneurs who meet it may have some very unappealing characteristics.

The U.S., by the way, has a quirky political culture in which Perots are left with little room to navigate; every presidential election is an overthrow of the elites. Since World War II Americans have only elected two new presidents from directly within the Washington elite, Kennedy and Bush I. Governors are preferred, always vowing to go shake up the stale self-involved ways of Washington. Moreover, Democrats are ostensibly elected to challenge the corporate elite and Republicans to challenge the government-media elite. At least a faux populism runs through the veins of American politics all the time. At the other extreme, France has had a decades-long model of government that is astonishingly elite-centered. French presidential and prime ministerial elections are grudge matches from the 1970s, not easily represented as populist newcomers overthrowing established ways. Next year's presidential election looks different; we'll see.

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