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The first of two French-language leaders debates during the Quebec election campaign takes place in Montreal Thursday night, and it will be the first contest as party leader for four of the five participants.

Polls have shown the Coalition Avenir Québec with a sizable lead over its four main opponents ahead of the so-called "face-to-face" debate on TVA network, which will pit one leader directly against another.

CAQ Leader François Legault, the incumbent premier and the only participant who has debated before as a provincial party leader, told reporters this week he recognizes he'll be the target.

“I expect the four leaders to attack me; it's a bit normal, when you look at the polls," Legault said Tuesday. "So we try to predict these attacks, predict responses."

In the 2018 election, there were only four parties involved in the face-to-face debate; the Conservative Party of Quebec did not hold any seats at the time and wasn't invited. Thursday's debate will feature Legault, Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade, Québec solidaire spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon and Conservative Leader Éric Duhaime.

"It will be the first time we will be five and it's an additional challenge because it gives less time to each leader to assert themselves," Duhaime said Wednesday, adding that he's very confident going in.

Nadeau-Dubois, whom Legault has singled out several times during partisan speeches in recent days, said he'll take the exercise seriously but also wants to have fun. "It's well known that the debates are an important moment for any political campaign," Nadeau-Dubois said.

Speaking this week in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., 630 kilometres northwest of Montreal, Nadeau-Dubois said the debate will also be important for voters. Many have come to him on the campaign trail unsure of who to vote for, he said, adding that Thursday's contest will be a chance to crystallize that choice.

"I want to have a debate with my colleagues from the other political parties because we have tough questions to answer for the future of Quebec," Nadeau-Dubois said.

Quebec election: Leaders go 'face-to-face' during first #ElectionDebate tonight. #Polqc #Quebec #election #Quebec2022

Anglade, whose party is struggling in its Montreal-area strongholds, according to polls, told reporters this week the debate will allow Quebecers a chance to discover the leaders.

"It is an opportunity to show the real differences in the type of Quebec we want," she told Montreal's CJAD 800 radio station on Wednesday.

She said it's a chance to let people know about her values and what she cares about. "It's exciting because it gets to the fundamentals of why you are in politics," she said.

Legault said he'll take time to rest up ahead of Thursday night, where he will be on the defensive for the first time as the incumbent premier.

“There is a certain stress, I will not hide it from you, attached to that," Legault said.

A second French debate, on Radio-Canada, will take place on Sept. 22.

Unlike in 2018, there will be no English-language debate this election campaign.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2022.

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