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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's separatist Bloc Quebecois, which holds enough seats in Parliament to prevent any party from gaining a majority, has lost its way, a senior member of the independence movement said on Wednesday in the latest blow to the party's electoral hopes.
The Bloc, which wants French-speaking Quebec to split from the rest of Canada, has 48 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons. It was created in 1991 to push for independence but has since started to focus on defending Quebec's rights.
But polls show support for the Bloc is waning and the ruling Conservatives are targeting at least 15 of the Bloc's seats as ones that they could win as they seek an elusive majority government in the October 14 election.
Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe's mood was not improved when leading separatist Jacques Brassard said the party had drifted far from its founding principles by playing down talk of an independent Quebec.
"Sovereignty has more or less been put on the back burner. It's not discussed any more. The circumstances aren't suitable. But the fact remains that that's why the Bloc exists... I'm sorry, but this does not suit me. I don't recognize myself in this party," he told La Presse newspaper.
The independence movement is notorious for its infighting, so the comments by Brassard -- a former minister in a provincial government run by the separatist Parti Quebecois -- were not in themselves surprising.
But the remarks dominated a Duceppe news conference.
"In a democracy there are people who belong to a family who do not necessarily agree with what happens in that family," Duceppe said, denying that he was soft-pedaling the idea that Quebec should become independent.
"The only party capable of beating the Conservatives (in Quebec) is the Bloc Quebecois."
The Conservatives said Brassard's comments showed that the Bloc was irrelevant.
"Mr. Duceppe cannot mention in all honesty a single achievement, a single real gain for Quebecers, which is attributable to the Bloc," Trade Minister Michael Fortier, himself from Quebec, told reporters in Ottawa.
"Any municipal council accomplishes more in one year than the Bloc has in 18 years."
A Leger Marketing poll last week showed support for the Bloc at just 30 percent in the province, down from 42 percent in Canada's January, 2006, federal election. The Conservatives were also on 30 percent, up from 25 percent in 2006.
But Pierre Martin, a political scientist at the University of Montreal, said the party may lose seats, but it will not be obliterated.
"All journalists should take the stories about the death of the Bloc and bury them. This is not going to happen as long as you have anywhere between a third and half of the electorate who claim to be 'sovereigntist' -- there will be a voice for that electorate," he told Reuters.
Separatists have lost two Quebec referendums over whether the province should be independent, and opinion polls show that a new referendum on the issue would also be defeated.
With additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Janet Guttsman