MONTREAL - This not the Fête nationale — as St-Jean-Baptiste Day is officially known in Quebec — that the Parti Québécois had in mind.
Three months ago sovereigntist strategists believed a governing majority was at hand for premier Pauline Marois.
They expected Tuesday’s celebrations to mark the first opportunity in a decade to put the secession project back on track.
Instead the party is plumbing the depths of unpopularity.
The last published Quebec polls before the summer break show the PQ in third place, at 20 per cent, almost 10 points behind the Coalition Avenir Québec.
Support for sovereignty hovers between 31 per cent (Léger Marketing) and 36 per cent (CROP).
In short, the PQ is less popular than its raison d’être.
To a governing party looking at holding a referendum, the split in the sovereigntist vote among at least as many as three parties would not matter.
But in the PQ’s current predicament, that split could see it consigned to a permanent opposition berth in the national assembly.
To compound its problems, the party is beset with internal divisions.
Since the election, no unifying figure with the gravitas to move the party forward has emerged from within the movement’s ranks. Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe — who might have fit that bill — took himself out of the race last month.
Among those likely to run, the most prominent are media mogul Pierre-Karl Péladeau and former minister Bernard Drainville — and both are polarizing figures in their own right.
Drainville’s values charter drove almost as deep a wedge within the sovereignty movement as it did in Quebec at large.
As for Péladeau, his track record as a union-lockout champion would likely cost the party the support of its union and social democrat allies.
The Bloc Québécois is in even worse shape.
Earlier this month, the federal party picked Mario Beaulieu, an ultra-sovereigntist activist, to lead it in the next election.
He is at least as likely to lead it to its final resting place.
On Saturday, Le Devoir published Léger Marketing’s quarterly “barometer” of personal approval ratings for 63 federal and provincial politicians. At 8 per cent, Beaulieu ranked 54th on the popularity scale and twice as many respondents had a poor opinion of the rookie leader. The majority did not know who he was.
For the record though, Beaulieu’s dubious score does not even come close to Stephen Harper’s negative approval rating. Sixty-eight per cent of Quebecers — the highest of any politician on the Léger list — have a bad opinion of the prime minister.
Overall, the numbers continue to point to an NDP/Liberal federal battle for Quebec next year and the election could be Thomas Mulcair’s to lose.
Among francophone voters, the New Democrats are well ahead of the competition and Quebec is a rare province where Mulcair is more popular than Justin Trudeau (57 per cent versus 42 per cent).
A sign that, in his home province, the Trudeau name cuts both ways; the proportion of Quebecers (12 per cent) who have a bad opinion of the NDP leader is three times lower than in the case of his Liberal rival.
Still, the NDP remains essentially a one-man show in Quebec. According to Léger, none of the other New Democrat MPs — including the few who managed to wrestle some question period time in the Commons from their leader — has made an impression on a majority of voters.
But the war between the NDP and the Liberals obscures a larger and more fundamental reality.
If a federal election had been held this month, more than 80 per cent of Quebecers would have cast a ballot for a federalist party.
The pendulum has swung decisively away from sovereignty and there is no guarantee it will swing back.
In time the federalist-sovereigntist divide may come to be replaced by a left-right one. But, in a province where parties have a long-standing tradition of building coalitions between progressives and conservatives in the name of the larger causes of sovereignty and federalism, such a change will not happen overnight.
To wit, even as they hail from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, CAQ leader François Legault and the NDP’s Mulcair currently enjoy the highest approval ratings in Quebec.