Graeme Hamilton - When local activists singled out a small St. Denis Street shoe store as the focus of their campaign to boycott Israeli products, they figured it was a soft target.
Boutique Le Marcheur is a family-run business, owned by a francophone Québécois couple. It is in the heart of Montreal’s lefty enclave, the Plateau Mont-Royal, and the made-in-Israel BeautiFeel shoes it carries represent a tiny portion of its overall sales.
But when protesters showed up last fall with banners and pamphlets for the first of their weekly demonstrations, they did not reckon on the resolve of owners Yves Archambault and Ginette Auger. Neither paid the least attention to Middle East politics, but after 25 years in business, they were not going to be pushed around.
“Nobody has the right to tell me what I can sell in my store,” Mr. Archambault said in an interview this week. “Maybe next someone will complain about products from Germany, or China. Where does it end ?” Ms. Auger said she will not concede victory to the “fanatics” who gather on the sidewalk outside the store every Saturday afternoon : “The more they do it, the more I want to continue to fight.”
That spirit has produced some unexpected victories for the couple. Politicians from all levels of government have come out in support of Le Marcheur, and last week Montreal city council passed a resolution denouncing the boycott. A local Member of the National Assembly representing the left-leaning Québec Solidaire party was roundly criticized for joining in the protest last December, prompting him to express his regrets. And the group behind the boycott, Palestinian and Jewish Unity (PAJU), has softened its rhetoric and decided to re-focus its initiative on other stores in the neighbourhood.
Still, Mr. Archambault and Ms. Auger are not in the mood for celebrating. Sales are down, and Ms. Auger said the situation would be disastrous if not for a counter-protest by supporters of Israel, who have made a point of shopping at Le Marcheur. The anti-Israel demonstrators rarely number more than a dozen, but they crowd the sidewalk and do their best to discourage shoppers from entering the store. “They come here on our best day of the week, during the best part of the day,” Mr. Archambault said. “It intimidates passersby. It intimidates our regular customers.” And because of the political leanings of the neighbourhood’s residents, the boycott message has struck a chord with some of their regular customers.
Mr. Archambault said he was taken aback when PAJU showed up for the first time on Oct. 2. His decision to stock the BeautiFeel brand, which accounts for about 2% of annual sales, was based entirely on the style and quality of the shoes. “We never take into account the origin of the merchandise. We have no political allegiance,” he said. Initially, the couple decided to keep things quiet, hoping the protests would die off. They followed police advice to remove BeautiFeel shoes from their window display to avoid “provoking” anyone.
But when Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir, whose Mercier riding is a block north of the store, joined the protesters on Dec. 11, people took notice, including La Presse’s Lysiane Gagnon, who labelled him “a fanatic radical.”
Mr. Khadir now claims he misunderstood the nature of the protest, despite the clear message on the pamphlet he held while taking part. The pamphlet said “Boycott Le Marcheur” and vowed to continue the campaign until the store stopped selling BeautiFeel shoes. Mr. Khadir now says that he regrets taking part and that he wants people to boycott the products, not the merchant.
“I wish all possible success to Boutique Le Marcheur, as for all Quebec stores,” Mr. Khadir said in an emailed statement. “I would have hoped the owner would be sensitive to the ethical issues of business and would join the boycott, but that is not the case, which is his right.”
Even PAJU, which protested every week for seven years outside the Israeli consulate in Montreal, is scaling back its campaign. “What we’re saying is if you go into his store, don’t buy the BeautiFeel shoes,” said Bruce Katz. The Saturday pickets will continue outside the shop, but only for a half-hour before protesters move to a nearby store that sells exclusively Israeli-made shoes.
Mr. Katz said he does not want to drive Mr. Archambault out of business, but he considers him the author of his own troubles. “In my estimation, the general public is not sympathetic to Israeli oppression of the Palestinians,” he said. “Wittingly or unwittingly, he has made himself a symbol of pro-Israel support.”
Of course, Mr. Archambault never wanted to stand for anything but the sale of comfortable footwear. “We aren’t here to analyze what is done in other countries,” he said. “We do not sell politics. We sell shoes.”