OTTAWA (Reuters) - Quebec citizens do not want a referendum on leaving Canada at the moment, separatist leader Pauline Marois said on Thursday, repeating that as long as that is the case she would not launch one if she is re-elected premier of the province.
"I am a determined woman, you know, but I am also a woman who can listen," Marois told reporters after a leaders' debate ahead of the April 7 provincial election.
"At this point, I know very well that Quebeckers do not want a referendum, and if they don't want one I will be capable of listening to them."
The question of whether Quebec would head into a third referendum on leaving Canada has emerged as the dominant question of the election campaign and has cut into support for her separatist Parti Quebecois.
The party had gone into the election campaign leading in the polls and possibly heading for the majority of seats that would be required if she ever did want to call a referendum.
It had sought to focus on issues other than independence, but after media magnate Pierre Karl Peladeau joined her team with the cry that he wanted to make Quebec a country, her party fell behind the pro-Canada Liberal Party of Quebec.
During the debate, Marois repeated what she has said during the campaign: "There will not be a referendum, as long as Quebeckers are not ready for one."
"Ah, there. Voila!" interjected Liberal leader Philippe Couillard after she added the conditional phrase "as long as Quebeckers are not ready."
He insisted that people know she will bring in a referendum if she wins a majority of seats in the Quebec legislature. In 1994 the separatists had said exactly what she said on Thursday night, he said, "and one year later we had a referendum."
The separatists lost the referendum in 1995 by just over 1 percentage point. In their first try in 1980 they lost by almost 20 points.
"She was not capable of dispelling doubt," Couillard told reporters afterwards.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)