A massive student protest over Quebec’s plans to raise tuition fees escalated this week amid violent clashes with police and the prospect of snap elections to pave the way for conciliation.
Despite the growing unrest, the government of the French-speaking Canadian province has refused to meet with student groups behind 11 weeks of protests, after talks broke down earlier in the week.
“There will be no dialogue [with them] as long as the violence continues,” Quebec Premier Jean Charest said on Thursday, after police arrested 85 people for smashing storefronts and vandalizing cars during a riot in Montreal on Wednesday night.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesman of the most militant student group, CLASSE, responded in a televised address that the group and its followers “don’t encourage violence, have never encouraged violence and I don’t encourage violence.”
Approximately 180,000 university and college students, or 45 percent of all students in the province, are “on strike,” having refused since the beginning of February to attend classes in order to draw attention to a planned 75 percent hike in school fees over five years to C$3,800 (US$3,862) starting in September.
Negotiations began on Monday between the two sides to find a way forward, but broke down two days later, with the government accusing CLASSE of reneging on a temporary truce by posting a schedule for new demonstrations on its Web site.
Education Minister Line Beauchamp declined to resume negotiations as long as CLASSE, which represents almost half of the students on strike in Quebec, was at the table.
The move was widely seen as an attempt to divide the protesters. The other two main student groups, however, maintained solidarity with CLASSE, leading to a deadlock.
The Charest government’s strategy in dealing with student unrest “is difficult to read,” said Pascale Dufour, a politics professor at the University of Montreal.
Charest, whose beleaguered Liberal Party has made gains in recent polls, worries electors would punish his party at the ballot box for backtracking on the planned tuition hike, which is part of his government’s overall efforts to rein in a burgeoning budget deficit, she explained. Dufour noted that young people typically do not vote in large numbers in elections.
Analysts said Charest could win a fourth mandate in snap elections if he triggered them now, but the student crisis may prompt him “to let the unrest froth until it becomes a crisis and then call for a general election to settle the matter,” Dufour said.