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Emerging from the shadows of Canada's national Parliament to run for the top job in Quebec, Jean Charest, has suddenly put the once-powerful government of Quebec's separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard on the defensive, making it look tired, old and vulnerable.

On Thursday, Charest, 39, announced he would quit federal politics to lead Quebec's Liberal Party in the next provincial election, expected within a year.

He immediately took aim at Bouchard and his separatist followers who want to make Quebec an independent nation.

"The old grievances and endless bickering cultivated and perpetuated by the (separatists) serve only to sap our strength," he said. "Our economy and our future are held hostage to a political debate that costs us so very dearly."

Charest warned his fellow Quebeckers that Bouchard will soon launch "an unprecedented barrage of propaganda" against him, and attempt to back off the highly unpopular promise of another independence referendum if the Partis Quebecois is re-elected. In 1995, Quebeckers rejected independence by a margin of less than 1 percent.

"Quebec does not need to ask permission from anyone to be what it is," he said, and "Canada doesn't need a savior." The first step to Canadian unity, he added, is to rebuild solidarity in Quebec in a way "that unites and motivates people."

Before Charest's announcement, Bouchard's government had a comfortable lead in the public opinion polls against the opposition Quebec Liberal Party under then-leader Daniel Johnson. But when Johnson resigned, the wave of enthusiasm for Charest is reflected in polls showing his 50 percent-plus support is rising.

The showdown between Charest and Bouchard, once national Cabinet colleagues and friends, will provide a sharp contrast in visions.

Bouchard, 59, grew up in solidly French-speaking rural Quebec and never visited other parts of Canada until late in life. Once a federalist and Cabinet minister in the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, he quit Mulroney's government to fight for Quebec independence, first as a separatist leader in the national Parliament and now as Quebec premier.

Charest grew up in the city of Sherbrooke, Quebec, near the U.S. border. He began traveling Canada as a teen-ager, and despite voting for independence in 1980, since 1983 he has favored a united, but slightly decentralized, Canada.

Elected to Parliament at age 26, by 28 Charest was the youngest Cabinet minister in Canadian history and a colleague of Bouchard. At 35, Charest became leader of the national Progressive Conservative Party.

Now, he is anxious to take on Bouchard in an election Charest sees as a springboard for his eventual return to national politics.

On the key issues driving Quebec provincial politics, he hammered home the need for a "strong central government" but with greater provincial control in areas such as education and health care. While he favors keeping Quebec laws guaranteeing the predominance of French, he said the current government's enforcement efforts should be re-examined.

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