QUEBEC - Premier Jean Charest has lashed out at his main political rivals, accusing them of fanning the flames of intolerance in the ongoing debate on reasonable accommodation.

In a letter published in several Quebec newspapers on Tuesday, Charest said he is concerned the province's reputation for openness and tolerance will take a beating in the rest of Canada, the United States and in France.

One of his main targets is Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois, who recently tabled a bill in the legislature aimed at forcing immigrants to learn French before they can run in elections.

Charest's minority government rejected the bill, which would also have forced immigrants to pass a French test to get Quebec citizenship.

"In Pauline Marois' draft legislation regarding a Quebec identity, I don't recognize the confident Quebec that has conquered the world,'' Charest states in the letter.

"Her bill does not express what we have become as a society: generous, proud, firmly attached to the principle of equality.

"I can see only a withdrawal from the profoundly democratic nation we have built. Rather than flog a dead horse, Ms. Marois should abandon this bad idea.''

Charest then went on to accuse Marois of choosing to "poison'' the debate on accommodations by trying to create a language crisis.

Marois responded to the premier on Tuesday, accusing him of trying to "demonize'' her.

She also lambasted Charest for debating the issue in the media and not in the national assembly.

Charest also took aim at Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec, the official Opposition.

"But the best was yet to come when the ADQ, like a pyromaniac firefighter, in turn denounced Marois' draft legislation,'' the premier wrote.

"I never would have thought it possible in Quebec that the leaders of our democratic process would feed on prejudices rather than fight them. I never would have thought it possible that aspiring premiers would play with Quebec's international reputation.''

Dumont is widely considered to have triggered the debate on reasonable accommodation when he spoke out about it before the general election last spring.<

Dumont says it's the vacuum of leadership caused by Charest that has caused the problem.

"When a series of clearly unreasonable accommodations took place, we were waiting for a clear stand from the premier, a solid defence of Quebec's common values,'' Dumont told reporters in Quebec City.

"What we had instead was an absent premier who wanted to avoid the topic. That had an enormous impact on increasing the problem and making the problem more complex.''

After being re-elected in March with a minority government, Charest set up a commission to study the thorny issue. Headed by intellectuals Gerard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the commission is currently touring the province to hear Quebecers' views.

Dumont said Charest's open letter demonstrates he has already made up his mind and will likely disregard whatever recommendations Bouchard and Taylor make.