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Federal Election 2021: Recap of the first French debate

TVA's debate 2021

It is often said that the real campaign starts with the first debate. This election, which has been fairly quiet so far, is no exception. Last night's “head-to-head" debate (Face-à-Face) on the TVA network in Quebec marked the beginning of the last stretch before the general election on September 20.

The four leaders approached the debate with the objective of winning points in Quebec (or at least not losing any) while avoiding to cause any controversy elsewhere in Canada. They succeeded. Although the leaders of the four major Canadian parties all offered good performances, we would be tempted to say that the real winner of this confrontation has been the French language. For a rare occasion in this kind of event, the theme of French language was addressed by all four leaders. These leaders also mastered French well enough to last two hours in a debate, something that had never been seen before.

Justin Trudeau had a huge challenge ahead of him. After six years in office, he not only had to convince voters that he still has more to accomplish, but he also had to explain why it was necessary to call an election two years after the most recent one, in the midst of a pandemic. Last night, the incumbent Prime Minister showed some of the passion he seemed to lack since the beginning of the campaign, especially regarding the issue of vaccination. This should help revive his campaign.

Quebecers, who don't know Erin O'Toole very well, now know that he has a plan. Very comfortable in French, the Conservative leader avoided falling into the traps set by his opponents. The poor performance of his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, in the 2019 election served as a lesson to Mr. O'Toole who managed to get through the two-hour debate without any major blunders, which represents a gain for the Conservatives.

After a slow start, Jagmeet Singh regained his composure when the issue of systemic racism was raised. He also showed a lot of compassion throughout the debate. This is not the NDP leader's first campaign and it shows. We can also see that he has learned a lot about Quebec over the past few years. Hours before the debate, he even offered and served his own poutine recipe to the voters of Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie in a food truck.

Finally, it's undeniable Yves-François Blanchet is particularly at ease in this type of confrontation. A natural debater, he had to refrain from showing his heated character and avoid behaving in an arrogant manner. Mission accomplished for the Bloc leader who was advantaged by the facts that French is his native language and that he does not have to defend a record or present a plan to govern the country.

Best quotes of the debate

(All quotes are translated since the debate was held in French).

"Our democracy is more resilient than the pandemic." (Justin Trudeau when defending his choice to call an election while the pandemic is still ongoing)

"We don't want more bureaucrats, we want more nurses." (Yves-François Blanchet on federal health transfers)

"We have a choice between more oil and full oil." (Jagmeet Singh commenting on Liberal and Conservative positions on climate change)

"The provinces need a partner, not a father." (Erin O'Toole on respecting provincial jurisdictions)

"Moderna in Quebec or in Ontario?" (Host Pierre Bruneau when questioning leaders on the future location of Moderna's vaccine plant)

Impact on the rest of the campaign

It remains to be seen whether the debate will have an impact on the numbers in the various national polls in the coming days. Leaders who can claim to have scored points will undoubtedly repeat their catchphrases on all the platforms and will want to take advantage of the momentum.

If the polls shift, we'll see the effects early next week and it's a safe bet that this new dynamic will then determine the importance of the next debates, which will be held by the CBC and Radio-Canada consortium on September 8 and 9. In the meantime, as each of the candidates had some good moments to showcase, it is likely that the next few days will be exciting and that the tone will become increasingly acrimonious.

It's September 3, and the 2021 election campaign has now really taken off!

Consult our 2021 Federal Election section to get the latest perspectives from our experts.