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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper, trying to shrug off accusations of censorship in the run-up to next month's election, said on Tuesday that artists protesting against funding cuts by the Conservative government were out of touch with the general public.
The issue of arts funding could hurt Harper in French-speaking Quebec, where culture is a particularly sensitive topic and where the Conservatives need to pick up more support if they hope to win a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.
The minority Conservatives have killed off C$45 million ($43 million) in programs that allowed artists to travel overseas. But Harper argued on Tuesday his government had increased arts funding by 8 percent since winning the January 2006 election.
"When ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people ... all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren't high enough when they know those subsidies have actually gone up, I'm not sure that's something that resonates," he said.
"I think this is a niche issue for some," he told a televised news conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Opinion polls show the Conservatives ahead of the second-place Liberal Party and are virtually certain to retain power in the Oct 14 election, but their chances of forming a majority government remain in doubt.
Quebec artists are due to hold a rally and a concert on Tuesday in Montreal to demonstrate against the cuts.
Harper prompted protests last month when he said Ottawa should avoid "funding things that people actually don't want" and criticized "creators or producers who are entirely cut off from public need".
The left-leaning New Democrats took out advertisements in Quebec newspapers on Tuesday, playing on the French word for Conservative -- Conservateur -- and turned it into "Conserva-tueur de la culture," or "culture killer."
New Democrat leader Jack Layton said he would "make no apologies for using strong words against strong and negative deeds on his (Harper's) part".
The protests have also reached video-sharing website YouTube, which features a humorous short film produced by Quebec artists.
The popular clip -- which can be accessed here -- shows a hard-line panel of English-speaking Harper supporters blocking a bid by a French-speaking artist to gain funding for a trip abroad.
Three polls released on Tuesday showed the Conservatives well ahead of the Liberals, whose leader Stephane Dion is seen having run an unimpressive campaign so far.
Dion says Harper is the most right-wing prime minister in Canada's history and someone who will wreak havoc if he gains a majority.
He rejected what he called "an ideological attack on arts and culture" and said the Liberals would restore the funding.
"We want to have fun in life," he told an audience on Tuesday in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, a major move production center.
With additional reporting by Allan Dowd in Vancouver