June 9, 2015 / 4:54 PM / 5 years ago

Popular Quebec figure to try to resuscitate separatist party

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Gilles Duceppe, a popular veteran crusader for Quebec’s independence from Canada, is set to return to the fight and will lead the separatist party he long headed in the federal election this October, Canadian media reported on Tuesday.

La Presse newspaper said Mario Beaulieu, the current leader of the now much-reduced party, the Bloc Quebecois, will voluntarily turn over the leadership to Duceppe, with an announcement on Wednesday.

Beaulieu’s hard line on independence has turned off a lot of former Bloc supporters, and the softer approach of Duceppe could boost the separatist cause in general in Quebec, as well as cut into the support of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP) in the French-speaking province.

The NDP, the main federal opposition party, is mounting the most serious challenge to the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper ahead of October’s election. Most of the NDP’s seats are in Quebec.

La Presse said internal Bloc polling shows support for the party would be three times as high under Duceppe as under Beaulieu, who does not have a House seat.

There is no certainty that Duceppe can return the Bloc to its glory days of the 1990s, when it was the second largest party in the House of Commons. Duceppe led the party to a humiliating defeat in the 2011 federal election, losing even his own House seat as the left-leaning NDP surged in Quebec.

But he is a much more recognizable and popular figure among Quebec citizens than Beaulieu. He is at ease with the media, and is a formidable debater in both French and English. He led the Bloc from 1997 to 2011, garnering between 38 and 54 seats in all elections until the Bloc was reduced to four in 2011.

After Beaulieu became leader in June 2014, two Bloc members of Parliament resigned from the caucus, leaving it with just two.

As a federal party, the Bloc itself cannot bring about Quebec independence, since only the provincial Quebec government can mount a sovereignty referendum.

The pro-Canada Liberal Party was elected in the Quebec provincial election last year with a four-year mandate. In the 2018 election, the Liberals will face a challenge from the separatist Parti Quebecois under a new leader, charismatic media mogul Pierre-Karl Peladeau.

Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Peter Galloway

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