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Antoine Robitaille June 16, 2012
Original French text: http://www.ledevoir.com/politique/quebec/352673/les-ravages-de-la-polarisation
Not since the referendums has Québec been so divided.
You might laugh, but Pauline Marois had something of Pierre Trudeau about her yesterday. Over the course of this spring, she said, “many kitchens and living rooms in Québec have become sites of debate as heated as in our [parliamentary chamber]. I think it’s time for us to come together.” She also suggested that this summer will be a time for Quebeckers to “come together peacefully and joyfully” after a period of intense polarization.
She might almost have added Trudeau’s elegant phrase from the evening of May 20th, 1980, a time of another great political polarization: “If we take into account friendships broken, hearts scorched, and hurt pride, there is no one among us who has no wounds in their soul to be healed over the coming days and weeks.” Jean Charest, also yesterday, wished that, after an intense spring, Quebeckers would at least celebrate la Fête nationale [St Jean Baptiste, June 24th], (which also happens to be Charest’s birthday…) “to maybe put aside the debates that have divided us” so as to “concentrate more on what we have that is important and essential, common values, the fact of being Quebeckers.”
Not since the great battles of the referendums has Québec been as divided as it is today.
And just as in those days, the political polarization of the province has brought with it a great deal of collateral damage. It’s been a new type of festival, one of exaggeration, hyperboles, and conspiracy theories.
In chamber, the morning of the passage of Bill 78, deputy Maka Kotto said “In reading this proposed bill, Mr. President, a bill that I dare not support, I had the urge to return to Africa.” (Since then, he has said that this was just a joke.)
The other camp isn’t far behind. The Minister of Culture, Christine St-Pierre, apologized this week for having equated wearing a red square with violence and intimidation. She had taken up Charest’s argument, albeit awkwardly.
Charest has yet to back down from hyperbole. He even invented a new article in the Charter of rights, when he was raging against those “so-called strikers who are depriving Québecois citizens of their most fundamental right, having access to their classrooms!”
And as for the unrest, the streets have not been quiet. On Avenue Cartier, in Québec City, a sign was discreetly hung from a lamppost this week: “Putin and Charest, it’s the same fight.” And on Twitter? Everyday: “Police repression maintains Charest’s totalitarian regime;” “Little Benito Charest Mussolini’s dictatorship,” etc.
Society as a whole has become a giant Internet forum, where ‘Godwin’s law’ is in full force (This law, also known as “reductio ad Hitlerum” holds that the longer a discussion lasts on the Internet, “the closer the probability of someone making a comparison to Hitler or to Nazis gets to 1.”) If they could care less about Bill 78, protestors are quite amenable to Godwin’s law when they give Nazi salutes to police officers. The ‘maple spring’has led to the discovery of a whole other law, the mirror image of Godwin’s, “reductio ad Stalinium.” This one led the former Minister Joseph Facal to detail his imaginary execution, in a column, by the communist dictator Amir Khadir!
The current public debate finds itself torn between two ‘laws’ that contradict one another completely. Each side becomes more and more steadfast in their radical opposition. If there was a “nuancist” party, that examined the nuances of the situation, it would be forbidden. At the “Nous?” event at the beginning of April at the Monument-National, a sort of ‘poetry night’ of this maple spring, a poet, Jean-Philippe Bergeron, read the following: “I believe that the FLQ contributed to the progress of the separatist movement in Québec. Those who do not believe this are probably hoping for reforms of capitalism, a televised revolution, a place in the sun.” He added: “People who demand a respectful debate are always on the side of power.” A polarized public space replaces the notion of adversaries with that of enemies.
The Léger Marketing-Le Devoir poll, published today, highlights the levels of current polarization. The two main political parties are neck and neck, with 33% for the Parti Liberal du Québec and 32% for the Parti Québecois.
Those who claim to be on the side of the people sometimes forget that ‘the people’s’ ways, like those of ancient Gods, the vox populi, and the vox Dei, are mysterious. “I’m doing what all citizens are doing, I’m accompanying my people,” declared Amir Khadir on June 6th, after his arrest. Polls, however, indicate that a clear majority of Quebeckers, 56%, approve of the tuition hikes proposed by Charest’s government.
The causes of the current political polarization are numerous. Are not the Premier, as well as all of his ministers, in “denouncing”any violence, contributing to public attention to these tactics? It’s gone so far as to make front page news of the cancellation of a show by a little-known punk band.
Another cause of polarization observed by many is the increasing cleavage between left and right, and the decreasing polarization between separatists and federalists.
For the political pollster, Jean-Marc Léger, this left-right split was revealed in the federal election of May 2011. At that moment, “the left-right split took the upper hand.” He noted that at that moment, 43% of Quebeckers had voted NDP. “That’s a higher percentage than René Lévesque got in1976!” The separatist-federalist debate hasn’t totally disappeared, but “the left-right split got added and is more and more dominant,” he notes. At the start, the federalist-separatist split was also bitter. “It’s less bitter today. But now we’re starting to see a left-right split, and it’s a vindictive one.”
In the West, Québec isn’t the only country to go through a phase of polarization. The economic crisis and the excesses of the financial market have given life to the left whose last incarnation was the anti-globalization movement. The religious and fiscal right have both grown since Reagan, in both the U.S. and English Canada. “Obama is incredibly divisive. Even if, personally, he wished otherwise [notably, the end of the culture wars in 2009], it’s a 50%-50% split in American society, currently.”
At the Conférence de Montréal this past week, former president of the Fed, Allan Greenspan summed up the issue of political polarization: “We no longer admit that it is impossible to live together without compromises.” He said he was nostalgic for the 1960s, when party politics was as robust an arena as it is today, but in which people managed to get along. “The term ‘compromise’ has become a bad word,” he declared. The economist said that he hoped that people would rediscover the virtue of compromise, “not on the principles, but on the methods.”
Will Québec be able to make a similar wish for the ‘maple’ summer and fall to come?
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at email@example.com. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.