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Quebec Premier jokes with business leaders as police beat back protesters

Hundreds of protesters clashed with police in central Montreal on Friday in a sign of growing tension and violence over Quebec's decision to hike student tuition fees.

Police wielded batons and tear gas against demonstrators who massed around Montreal's convention centre, where Premier Jean Charest was to give a speech to promote his northern-development plan.

At around lunchtime, a group of protesters managed to enter the convention site before they were beaten back by police. Outside, protesters lobbed projectiles, including rocks, and smashed windows of the convention centre and some surrounding businesses.

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The confrontation signals a marked deterioration in a 10-week-old student movement that began as a peaceful protest against the Charest government's decision to increase tuition fees by $325 a year for five years.

And with no end in sight to the conflict, or indication of a break in the deadlock, some wonder how the near-daily scenes of chaos will affect Mr. Charest's re-election plans.

The mêlée on the streets around the Palais de congrès, a landmark between downtown Montreal and the old city, forced the Premier to delay his keynote speech to showcase the Plan Nord, the Liberal government's centrepiece for its re-election bid.

When he did speak to business leaders and elected officials, the Premier joked about the protests outside, saying that his northern-development job fair was so popular, "people were running from all over the place to get in." He also quipped that employers could offer the protesters jobs "as far North as possible."

The remarks sparked fierce criticism from political opponents and on social-media sites, and raised questions about Mr. Charest's strategy for handling the unrest.

Mr. Charest later told reporters his government was standing firm on the hikes, which would raise tuition to about $3,800 a year, and called the violence unacceptable. He noted that even after the increases, Quebec students would end up paying 17 per cent of the cost of their education, a lower percentage than their parents' generation paid.

He said he wouldn't be swayed "by some who think violence and intimidation is the way to get things done."

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Montreal police said the Friday protests led to 17 arrests and left several people, including four officers, with minor injuries. More than 165,000 students are boycotting classes in Quebec.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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