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Student unrest an election tinderbox in Quebec

Police officers detain protesters opposing Quebec student tuition fee hikes during a demonstration in Montreal on Aug. 1, 2012.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The political question of the moment in Quebec is how potential upheaval in the streets would affect results at the ballot box.

After a two-month recess, Quebec's student movement is poised to resume the strikes that began last February in colleges and universities, carrying with it unpredictable consequences for the provincial election campaign.

The Liberals are hoping the students will play into their hands, knowing that any social unrest provoked by the protest movement against university tuition-fee hikes will reinforce the law-and-order image Jean Charest believes will attract voter support.

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The Parti Québécois is loath to take that gamble. Leader Pauline Marois is urging Quebec student leaders to call a truce on further strikes and confrontations for the duration of the campaign, hoping to stave off potential violence that could help Mr. Charest`s re-election bid.

"It would certainly be good to hold a truce," Ms. Marois said on Thursday. "I invite students and those who marched in the streets to march toward their voting booths on election day and send a clear message to this government."

She made the plea while unveiling plans to freeze tuition fees for 100 days if the PQ forms the next government, promising a public forum to examine university funding. She said a PQ government would impose a ceiling on any tuition-fee hikes, indexing them to the cost of living.

The CLASSE, the most militant of Quebec's four student groups, will examine whether to call a truce as classes resume in postsecondary institutions later this month after being suspended by the Liberal government last June. At the time, Montreal and other cities were in the midst of nightly protests and social unrest stemming from the student strike in universities and colleges. But for now, the CLASSE said the strike action is still on.

The PQ accused Mr. Charest of provoking social unrest to divide voters and direct public attention away from the issue of corruption and mismanagement of public funds, which the PQ is banking on to win the election. Ms. Marois remained concerned that if the students resume their strike action it could lead to clashes with police and turn attention away from the Liberal government record.

Such clashes took place on Wednesday evening in Montreal, in which a television reporter was pelted with objects. And while the PQ Leader maintained her support of the student protest movement, Mr. Charest continued to identify his tough stand against the protesters as the expression of the will of the silent majority. He repeatedly made reference to episodes of "mob" violence in Quebec in recent months, saying that the situation has yet to be fully resolved.

"We are mindful of security, and we have to be mindful of security. Frankly, we have no other choice," he said Thursday.

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Mr. Charest said he wants everyone to be able to express their views, but that, in a democracy, the ultimate statement is made in private, at the ballot box.

"Those who protest will be able to vote, those who disagree will be able to vote, everyone will be able to vote, including the silent majority, and that is a very powerful moment in our life," he said.

He refused to say how he would react if he were to win the next election and the illegal demonstrations were to continue. He insisted, however, that he cannot tolerate the use of violence by protesters to prevent students from attending their classes.

His stand against violence has paid political dividends that the PQ fears could be repeated if the student movement gathers momentum during the campaign.

"Jean Charest is responsible for the social chaos," Ms. Marois insisted. "He says he is on the side of law and order and that with people in the streets it could harm Quebec society. But the fact is that he is responsible for this. If people are taking to the streets it is because of him."

The former president of the Quebec college student federation, Léo Bureau-Blouin, who is running as a PQ candidate in a riding north of Montreal, argued that a truce would take away an important part of the Liberals' re-election strategy.

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"We need to achieve a peaceful social climate. That is why I support the idea of a truce. We have to take all precautions not to play into the Liberals' hands," Mr. Bureau-Blouin said.

Ms. Marois took her campaign to the Montreal streets on Thursday, riding the subway, shaking hands and posing for pictures. At a rally she took pride in being labelled the party of street protesters. "Jean Charest said we are the party of the streets. He's right. It's true. And I'm proud of it."

Ms. Marois defied Mr. Charest to take his campaign to the streets as she has done after the Liberal Leader accused the PQ of being the party of protesters while the Liberals represented the silent majority.

"The only silent majority here are the Liberals who remained silent on the issue of corruption," Ms. Marois lashed back.

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About the Authors
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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