MONTREAL - The first of five debates that pits three candidates for the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party took place Sunday in Montreal.

As part of this first faceoff, the three aspiring leaders discussed education at Collège de Maisonneuve, where the corridors are lined with posters for the Association for Student Union Solidarity (ASSÉ) calling for a boycott of the education summit established by the Marois government.

Shortly before the debate, former finance minister Raymond Bachand ensured that the tone would remain cordial between him and his two opponents, Philippe Couillard and Pierre Moreau. He said that he much preferred to keep the battle aimed at Premier Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Quebecois, as well as at leader of Coalition Avenir Quebec, François Legault.

The debate took place on Sunday under the theme “How to better prepare our next generation.”

Couillard, who was Liberal health minister until he left for the private sector in 2008, suggested setting up a code of ethics for the Quebec Liberals to keep his party in check.

Moreau, a former transport minister, says he's open to making changes to the province's CEGEP system, while Bachand ruled out strengthening the province's language laws.

"We will not reopen Bill 101. I was quite clear and happy to see my colleagues have the same opinion on that," he said.

Bilingualism became a theme as Couillard took a similar approach to language.

"Many young anglos speak French, but some Francophones do not speak English," he said.

Moreau added the defending French does not mean Quebecers should not learn other languages.

It's good to hear some passion, said political analyst Jean Lapierre, who said the Liberals first challenge is to fight indifference about the race so far.

"Secondly, you're supposed to be able to raise money and it's been very hard for them all," he said. "Thirdly, I would think that the membership hasn't really increased, so it's the beginning of the race with this debate today."

Polls have placed Couillard as the front runner to replace former premier Jean Charest at the head of the party.

Charest stepped down after the PQ won enough seats to form a minority government in last September's provincial election.

The other four Liberal leadership debates, including one in English on Jan. 26, will be held over the next three weeks.

The new leader will be chosen March 17.

CTV reporter Cindy Sherwin is at the leadership debate and will provide full details on CTV Montreal news at 6 p.m.