By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
Published: October 25, 2005
QUEBEC, Oct. 20 - Quebec voters are a famously tolerant lot. They elect many gay and lesbian politicians, and they seem to think that political leaders who don't admit to having smoked marijuana are lacking in joie de vivre.
Jacques Boissinor/Canadian Press
André Boisclair became front-runner to lead the Parti Québécois after news reports of a very lively night life.
One premier in the 1970's ran over and killed a homeless man and then was re-elected.
So nobody was particularly surprised when André Boisclair, a 39-year-old gay man who banters about his sexuality on television talk shows, became the instant front-runner in the leadership race to head the separatist Parti Québécois.
The real test of Quebecers' broad-mindedness began last month, however, with a published report about Mr. Boisclair's lively night life in Quebec City - complete with excessive drinking and cocaine use - while serving in the provincial cabinet in the 1990's. The article described "wild weekends at the end of which you can't recall where you left your rented car."
Mr. Boisclair immediately faced a media frenzy, which only gathered steam as he first ducked all questions. Although he finally acknowledged cocaine use, he still refuses to say how often he took it, when he stopped taking it and where he got it.
In the United States, this sort of revelation usually means it's time to think seriously about that career in lobbying. But Mr. Boisclair's poll numbers did not drop. In fact, they soared, at least initially, with more than 70 percent of Quebecers saying in polls that his cocaine use was not an issue.
"It's a way of showing compassion and sympathy with people in trouble," said Alain Gagnon, a political scientist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, explaining the results of several polls. "Tolerance is something that defines the Quebec psyche. It comes from our history as a dominated group."
According to Leger Marketing, polls of voters aligned with the Parti Québécois, Mr. Boisclair's support climbed from 53 percent to 64 percent immediately after the disclosures. The strongest of his eight opponents, a former finance minister, Pauline Marois, dropped from 24 percent to 18 percent. In recent days, polls show the race has begun to tighten a bit.
How the Parti Québécois leadership race turns out when as many as 137,000 party members vote by telephone from Nov. 13 to 15 is no small matter. The current Liberal premier, Jean Charest, is slumping badly in the polls after a series of missteps and growing labor unrest, giving the Parti Québécois a good chance to win the next provincial election expected in 2007 or 2008.
Mr. Boisclair and the other leadership candidates have all promised to hold a third sovereignty referendum soon after the next provincial election if they win. The separatists lost the last vote in 1995 by a razor-thin margin, and separatist sentiment is running strongly again this year because of scandals that have ensnarled the national government.
Afraid of a backlash, Mr. Boisclair's opponents have hardly mentioned his drug use. At a two-hour candidates' debate Wednesday night here, it came up only once - and obliquely at that - when Ms. Marois, in her closing remarks said: "We will soon be at a decisive turning point in our battle. To succeed we must be beyond reproach."
It was a remark that reflected the concerns of many separatist intellectuals. Editorials in Le Devoir, the leading separatist newspaper, have questioned whether Mr. Boisclair is a man with the judgment and character to deal with the inevitable crisis that would ensue after a referendum victory as Ottawa struggles to hold the country together.
Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the University of Montreal, said Ottawa might unleash federal law enforcement to investigate Mr. Boisclair's racy past if Quebec independence loomed.
"This is a hardball game," Mr. Martin said in an interview. "He's going to have this hanging over him: taunts, investigations, more possible revelations. And that could make people more hesitant to follow him in this adventure."
Mr. Boisclair remains an eloquent politician with a Harvard degree and matinee idol good looks whose youthfulness stands in contrast to an otherwise aging and lackluster group of politicians in the leadership race. Nevertheless, Mr. Boisclair's surge was all the more surprising given that he at first responded to the reports awkwardly and defensively, parsing his answers and accusing the media of harassing him.
When a reporter first sought comment on the damning newspaper report, Mr. Boisclair responded by saying "Thank you. Bye." Later, as he accused a gaggle of questioning reporters of blocking his way in a hallway, he seemed to crack. "I am under a great deal of stress," he said. "I don't need this type of physical aggression on me."
In an interview, Mr. Boisclair said he could not fully explain his bump in the polls. "I think people appreciated my honesty," he said. "That said, I never had a drug problem. I used drugs but I never had a problem with dependence." Mr. Boisclair's resilient poll numbers have inspired a good deal of political chatter.
Lise Payette, a former Parti Québécois cabinet member, suggested in a column in the tabloid Journal de Montreal that Quebecers "have a weakness" for candidates who mirror the off-color image they have of themselves. "We Quebecers fancy our heroes a little bit cheeky, defeatist, hesitant, unsure of themselves, alcoholic, a little or even a lot unreliable, a little bit fraudulent or even a little drugged," she explained. "We like to say they are like us."
One cartoon in the Montreal daily La Presse advised Ms. Marois, Mr. Boisclair's strongest rival, that she should shoot something into her arm to spruce up her image. Just last week, Ms. Marois admitted she once smoked marijuana as a teenager but didn't like it. Her poll numbers went up slightly.
L'article a été écir le 25 octobre 2005.