“After the speech was delivered in the chamber, the party caucus congratulated Monsieur Lisée, saying that they would know his style anywhere.”
“When the compliments died down, Monsieur Lisée pointed at me:
‘All right, François, stand up.’
Then he announced, right in front of everyone:
‘I have to tell you that the man you’re complimenting – is standing right here!’”
If this were the film of François’s life, we’d see a montage of him typing on his computer while the words he writes come out of the mouth of Jean-François Lisée at Quebec’s National Assembly. When he adds a comma, Pauline Marois takes a sip of water before announcing a new initiative. Where he places an exclamation point, we hear party members cheer for Pierre Karl Péladeau.
“The funny thing is that Monsieur Péladeau has a reputation as a very forceful personality. But when he came into my office, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Look François, I’ve just made a few small changes, is that okay with you?’”
“I said, ‘Monsieur Péladeau, you’re the boss! Go ahead, change whatever you like. Of course it’s okay!’”
François was a speech-writer for the leaders of the Parti Québécois from 2013 to 2018. You might say his work is more about translation than policy.
“People’s instinct, when they don’t know the job, is to use the text to try and express their own ideas. That’s not how it works.
You stick to the message.
You aren’t an author, you’re a writer.
You’re not creating dialogue for some made-up character.
They’re the one who speaks through you.”
It would be a terrible mistake, in this job, to play at puppet-master: “If you’re going to be in the shadows, then stay in the shadows. Otherwise, it just won’t work.” But François also finds advantages to being incognito.
“When I went out, I loved how nobody knew it was me that wrote that stuff. First of all, that’s just how it had to be: the words weren’t mine, they belong to the person in power. But that also meant I got to hear what people thought. Nobody held back with me.”
Picture the camera zooming in on François’s discreet smile while, behind him, every face in the restaurant is turned toward the TV screens where the Quebec premier draws a deep breath, about to speak.
Spooling back through the movie reel of his life, François is first to admit that he hasn’t followed the beaten path. He trained as a psychologist, but never practiced – he was more attracted to communications. One career highlight was being part of the team that came up with the hidden cameras for the reality show Juste pour rire. The precarious nature of the TV business finally drove him to branch out in new directions, until in 2005 he became a policy advisor for the research department of the Parti Québécois.
“I often worked closely with elected members.
It was an amazing chance to learn, because you had to do everything.
You wrote their speeches.
You attended the parliamentary committees, worked on drafting new bills.
Sometimes you helped draft press releases.
You listened to various groups, proposed amendments to bills…
You were right there in the thick of it.
And when there were conversations to be had with the opposition party, you were often there as well.”
François punctuates this point with an emphatic gesture. This healthy, ongoing communication between parties is an important aspect of political life, one he doesn’t want to see on the cutting room floor.
“Talking with your opponents is the kind of experience that can change you. You might even see relationships that form. Sure, you wouldn’t necessarily call them up to go for a beer. But when you meet, you might ask after their family. Despite your differences, you have something in common, working in this demanding professional environment.”
“What it comes down to is, we’re all human beings.”
In 2007, after the Parti Québécois’s electoral defeat, François came down from Parliament Hill to try his hand at different jobs. He worked in communications for the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, then spent almost five years working for the regional economic development agency, Québec International. He finally landed at the Musée national des beaux-arts de Québec, as director of major gifts during the fundraising drive for the new Pierre Lassonde Pavillion.
“I was cultivating connections with organizations and individuals who had upward of $100,000 to give. Needless to say, I was always the poorest person at the table!”
“I loved working in arts and culture. I felt I was making a difference on some really special projects while I was there.”
He had no idea that, in the halls of government, his name was once more making the rounds.
The camera zooms in on a cellphone, vibrating on a desk…
“I’d already had an offer to get back to politics, and turned it down.
Then the phone rang a second time: they wanted me as one of two speech-writers for Madame Marois.”
“A chance to work for our first female premier doesn’t come twice in a lifetime. I said yes. I was brought onboard during the second half of her term.”
Before going all in, there was a moment of reflection. François knew he wouldn’t be the only one affected by his choice.
“I involved my family in the decision, because all of us knew how demanding it would be.”
“Working for the opposition had been less demanding. But with Madame Marois, of course I had to be available at a moment’s notice. You never knew when she would have to speak, you never knew what might happen.”
In the end, the clincher was François’s heartfelt commitment to the political cause.
“I am committed to the sovereignty movement. I always will be.”
“I also used to play sports, so the element of competition really pulled me in.
To work at that level, to push the limits of your abilities, to ask, ‘Will I really be able to do this?’ It’s thrilling, and stressful.
You’re paid for the first 35 hours a week. The next 35 are for love.
It’s a commitment that goes beyond just a job.”
“I think what people forget is how much of writing comes down to the painstaking search for the right word. It’s more of a slow chipping away than a bolt of inspiration. Less an art than a humble craft.”
Through this alchemical process, François would concoct four main types of speeches: for party members, for interest groups, for public announcements, and for motions without notice in the National Assembly.
“There are speeches at big conferences, where the agenda is more political, and you want to rally them with the broad strokes of strategy. There’s a kind of music to the words that lets you know that this is where you’ll feel the groundswell, this is where they’ll applaud, and this is the moment where you can pause for a sip of water.”
“Then you have speeches for interest groups, like a chamber of commerce. You get a briefing, you see what it is you’re supposed to announce – often something technical – and your job is to make it accessible. This kind of speech needs the most preparation, and you have to find ways to make it punchy. Things can drag when you’re in front of a gathering that isn’t very responsive, so you have to try to hold their interest.”
“You also have public announcements, which need to be made accessible to a general audience. We use a formula: ‘problem, solution, investment, and benefit to the population.’ In this case, the challenge is make everything understandable in the short amount of air time they give you.”
“Then there are the motions without notice which, by definition, drop on your desk the day of the speech. You’re hardly given any time to get it written.”
François take a sharp breath and it all comes back to him: the surge of adrenaline, the race against the clock.
“One thing that happened was the death of Monsieur Desmarais.
Of course, he’d never exactly been a friend to the sovereignty movement. He died the very morning that parliament went into session, and the liberals tabled a motion. I had about thirty-four minutes to write a speech for Madame Marois to pay tribute to Monsieur Desmarais.”
“It’s one of my speeches I’m most proud of. I was able to find a connection to Monsieur Desmarais, in that Madame Marois had been the MNA for Charlevoix, which happened to be a place dear to Monsieur Desmarais’s heart.”
“And what made me happiest was that after Madame Marois attended his funeral, she told me that the family members had thanked her particularly for that speech.”
From the death of a major media personality to the Quebec Mosque Shooting, François often had very little time to find the words for historic moments that marked the journeys of the three party leaders he worked with. Not to mention the never-ending stream of text required in the normal course of politics.
“It boggles the mind, the number of speeches that are given in a year. They run the gamut, everything from a tribute to a Romanian-Canadian sculptor to the Chamber of Commerce of Montreal, the Montreal Council of Foreign Relations, the Energy Cubes fitness challenge…”
François’s job also entailed being constantly prepared for the unforeseeable. Some leaders stuck to the letter of the speech; others would go wandering all over the map. While Madame Marois, “would read every dash and comma,” Monsieur Péladeau and Monsieur Lisée – who’d been a speechwriter himself, “one of the greats,” back in the day – were more likely to improvise.
Meticulous to a fault, François had a spotless record when it comes to correct facts and figures. But though no error ever slipped into his work, he still sometimes found himself doing damage control for the mistakes of others.
“Occasionally someone goes off-script, and says something that isn’t quite right. Then everyone would look at me, and I’d have to take the blame, though I knew full well I hadn’t written it.”
“Jean Royer, an advisor to Monsieur Parizeau (and mentor to me), put it this way: ‘Whatever else you do, your first job is to protect your boss.’”
There were missed opportunities and the party’s comeback ultimately floundered.
“It ended too soon. We weren’t perfect, but I believe the direction we were headed was fundamentally the right one. We were making things better.”
Still, François feels fortunate that in the course of his ordinary workday he got to witness scenes that wouldn’t have been out of place in a political drama on the silver screen.
“When you’re putting together a speech on some economic policy, and you have the Secretary General, the Deputy Minister, and the Minister of Finance all looking at you, saying, ‘François, what do you think, can you make something out of this?’”
And then Madame Marois turns around and asks, ‘Okay, François, does this work for you?’”
He laughs, marvelling at this drama he lived through.
“Moments like that are unforgettable.”
Looking back over his patchwork career behind the scenes, François knows his words have had an impact.
“The difference I made as a writer was to ensure that the message got out there, that it was understood.”
“At the Musée national de beaux-arts, I drafted the proposal for Bombardier. We reached an agreement that they would give $250,000 to the museum foundation, and in exchange, 1,000 children from low-income neighbourhoods would be able to go to the museum day-camp. And a while later, I was standing in an Intermarché grocery store and I heard a lady talking about her little boy who went to art camp.”
“That’s my accomplishment. That was me.”
François is grateful for the personal and professional accomplishments that came with his political adventures.
“I developed an ability to see where interests would converge, how to get an idea in motion or zero in on an objective.”
Still, after leaving politics, François went two years without writing a word. “Just the sight of my keyboard would make me break out in hives.”
“Fortunately, beyond work, a new passion was calling him: “I became a father late in my life, but now I’m a Papa through and through. Being Alice’s dad is the most important part of my identity.”
Will he go back to writing some day?
“I did some writing for children’s theatre, long ago.
I would have liked to keep going with it. That urge is coming back, new ideas are simmering in my brain. Who knows what will come of it.”
Another leap into the unknown – but this time there’s a little girl in his carrier.
It seems the film of his life might end on a cliff-hanger…Back to the mural