Premier Jean Charest says he is willing to sit down with striking Quebec students to discuss how to break an impasse over his government’s plan to raise tuition fees, but has refused to include the more militant of the three groups, accusing it of encouraging vandalism and violence.
“It has taken extreme positions in the debate and its leaders refused to condemn the acts of violence like the ones we witnessed in recent days,” Mr. Charest said of Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE). The group represents about half of the striking students and has been at the forefront of the movement for a tuition-free university system.
As the student strike headed into its 10th week, the Premier also repeated his refusal to back down on the 75 per cent fee hikes over five years.
On Sunday, Education Minister Line Beauchamp took the first step by agreeing to sit down with the other two groups. The government was accused of attempting to divide the protest movement by excluding the CLASSE.
The situation remained tense on Monday at several campuses in Quebec and in Montreal, where vandals struck the offices of several cabinet ministers, breaking windows, splashing paint in the students’ trademark red, and leaving un-ignited Molotov cocktails.
Montreal’s metro system was disrupted during morning rush hour when the power was turned off on the underground train line and bricks were thrown on the tracks at five stations. Later, the city’s busiest station was evacuated when a smoke bomb was set off.
While police stopped short of blaming students, the two months of disruption have seen offices sacked, freeways blocked and classes cancelled. But Mr. Charest quickly blamed the CLASSE because it refused to condemn the violence.
“They are unable to condemn these acts,” Mr. Charest said. “When you intimidate people and put Molotov cocktails in front of MNA offices, and turn offices upside down, that is unacceptable. … If we don’t put our fist down on the table and refuse to accept these things right now, then when do you do it?”
While some student groups denounced the violence, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, president of the CLASSE, stopped short of a full condemnation, saying there are plenty of courts and other people in Quebec who are ready to condemn students.
“The CLASSE dissociates itself from those acts. Those are means of protest we do not use, that we’ll never use,” Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said.
Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said he made an initial concession by dropping his refusal to join talks as long as the fee hike was on the table. “Even if the government is not opening the discussion exactly as we would wish, we will be flexible and try to widen the discussion. It’s a concrete gesture,” he said.
Mr. Nadeau-Dubois called on the other two main student groups to maintain solidarity. “Either the three of us negotiate, or we don’t negotiate at all,” he said at a press conference.
He was supported by the president of the Quebec Federation of University Students Martine Desjardins who urged the government to recognize the solidarity of the student movement rather than attempt to create divisions.
A spokesperson for Ms. Beauchamp’s office remained adamant that the CLASSE would have to be excluded if talks were to be held. She gave no indication whether a meeting could be set up this week.