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A woman with a fleur-de-lis and Quebec flag drawn on her face shouts as she marches through the streets with protesters banging pots and pans during a demonstration in support of striking Quebec students in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 30, 2012. Students in Quebec have been protesting proposed tuition hikes since February.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Sitting on a stool at Caffe della Via, a hip student hangout on the fringes of Montreal's fast-gentrifying Petite Italie, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois is remarkably composed.

Although he leads Quebec's most radical student activists – known by the acronym CLASSE – he's no scruffy agitator or starry-eyed dreamer. A study in Gallic elegance, the 22-year-old is poised, articulate, groomed to an almost preppy shine. The only outward sign of his militancy is a red square, a symbol of the student protests he's sparked, pinned to his shirt.

And make no mistake. Whatever his personal style, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is out to upend the existing order. Earlier this spring, he mobilized thousands of students and sympathizers to fight a proposed tuition hike and take to the streets.

The results included an effective shut-down of the province's French-language colleges and universities (a full school term was lost). The sometimes violent protests also led Premier Jean Charest's Liberal government to adopt unprecedented legislation to control the demonstrations – largely in vain. Just this week, the 100th nighttime march by activists led to the arrest of 17 people.

The students have had a broader impact as well: What started as a campus backlash soon ballooned into an all-out rebellion against a government that was perceived as favouring the rich – and jolted Quebec out of a longstanding political torpor. No one following the student cause could be indifferent. Suddenly, there was a revival of passionate debate about the future of the province not seen since the last sovereignty referendum in 1995.

If debate is healthy, it's also messy: The student protests have spurred new discussions about what "our Quebec" should look like. It's also revealed how splintered the answer to that question has become. Canadians may think of Quebec as a province with a strong collective identity – perhaps at times a herd mentality – but that group affiliation has been fractured.

Old regional and partisan divisions still exist. What's new? Conflict along generational lines. In today's Quebec, age is becoming a reliable (if imperfect) indicator of politics.

My work has taken me out of Quebec, my adopted home, in recent years. But I return regularly to Quebec. And each time I land in Montreal, I am struck by the stubborn signs of stasis.

Despite a rich architectural heritage, parts of the city seem to be in shambles; wire mesh runs along the sides and bottoms of freeway overpasses, lest a chunk of concrete break loose and annihilate drivers below. And while Quebeckers are among the world's earliest adopters of new technologies, there's no sense here of a place on the move.

There is a reason for this "time warp" feeling: Quebec's share of the Canadian population and economy has been shrinking for decades. Its debt is now equal to 55 per cent of its gross domestic product, by far the highest in Canada. A reduction in federal transfer payments, a possibility when the current equalization formula expires in 2014, would be catastrophic for its finances.

Martin Coiteux, a professor at Montreal's École des Hautes Études Commerciales business school, calculates that an independent Quebec (assuming its share of accumulated federal borrowing) would have a debt burden in between those of Italy and Portugal, two of Europe's biggest basket cases.

"Quebec has experienced a relative decline since the 1960s," says Prof. Coiteux. "There is a blatant lack of economic dynamism in Quebec. We are still in the club of have-not provinces. That Ontario has joined us there is not much of a consolation."

Frustration over Quebec's economic status is not new.

In 2005, a dozen influential Quebeckers led by former Premier Lucien Bouchard – known as "les lucides" – created a manifesto calling for urgent action to tackle the province's spiralling debt and demographic decline. From there, the then-fledgling Action Démocratique du Québec took up the mantle.

But by the time the 2007 provincial election rolled around, the ADQ under Mario Dumont embraced an anti-immigration platform, playing down its proposed economic reforms. They succeeded in winning 41 of the National Assembly's 125 seats, becoming the official opposition and reducing the Liberals to a minority government.

Mr. Charest took advantage of a weak ADQ caucus and the global financial meltdown to call a snap 2008 election. He won a slim majority.

Today, however, neither the Liberals nor Péquistes are rallying more than a third of the electorate (and even then much of their support comes grudgingly). The new Coalition Avenir Québec, which absorbed the ADQ, is polling at just above 20 per cent.

What all of this suggests is that no one has adequately addressed the brewing anger over Quebec's economy – which is why the students have proved to be such a catalyst for wider debate.

The most vocal of Mr. Nadeau-Dubois's cohort envision a social-democratic Quebec with free universities and more redistributive public policies.

It's a familiar dream for older Quebeckers, particularly those in the Parti Quebecois, who came of age during the Quiet Revolution and who cling to their "project" of an independent Quebec that looks a lot more like Alsace than Alberta.

Many in the PQ have found the recent wave of student activism contagious. It's re-energizing jaded Baby Boomers in the party, who are now eager to draft youngsters into the sovereigntist fold (indeed, one prominent student leader is running for the PQ).

"If this had just been about a new generation coming up, it would not have been a very important," says Christian Dufour, 62, a political scientist at Montréal's École nationale d'administration publique. "But among a lot of Baby Boomers, there is a total identification with these young people."

Adds McGill University literature professor François Ricard, 65: "The people in my generation are disappointed and bitter because they have not realized their dream…. For those nostalgic for their own youth, [the student movement] has been extraordinary."

As the author a definitive book on Quebec's early boomers, 1994's La Génération Lyrique (The Lyrical Generation), Prof. Ricard also sees distinctive parallels in the mood of today's protest.

"Lyricism, is the sentiment that the world belongs to you. It is a sentiment of joy, that life is positive," he says. "What struck me about the [spring protests] was the 'party' atmosphere."

If the PQ needs to build an intergenerational coalition to recapture power, though, there's no guarantee young Quebeckers will sign on.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois's generation grew up in a cloistered Quebec. They threw off the shackles of the Catholic Church and the anglophone business establishment. But the Quiet Revolution institutions cherished by Ms. Marois and her ilk – from Hydro-Québec to the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec – have become symbols of crony capitalism for Mr. Nadeau-Dubois's generation.

A sovereign Quebec that grandfathers such state-sponsored behemoths will not hold appeal for young Quebeckers in the student protest movement.

The same goes for those between 35 and 55, though for different reasons. Many among this cohort feel it's time to rethink Quebec's statist model and finally address the wealth gap with the rest of Canada.

These Generation Xers and tail-end boomers are more pragmatic than their elders. If they're not ready to scrap $7-a-day daycare – as parents, they benefit most from it – they question whether it is worth paying the highest taxes in North America to keep it.

They did not fight the Quiet Revolution and, hence, have little stake in defending its sacred cows. They have no sympathy for the students' quixotic quest for a free education.

At one time the Coalition Avenir Québec seemed to offer hope. Prof. Coiteux was among those welcomed the emergence of CAQ. The brainchild of former PQ cabinet minister and co-founder of Air Transat François Legault, 55, and businessman Charles Sirois, the CAQ subsumed the ADQ, promising a 10-year truce on the national question to fix Quebec's public finances.

But as the CAQ's platform took shape, Prof. Coiteux tuned out.

"They chose to emphasize the ownership of businesses rather than the development of businesses," he says. "But where I really disconnected was on the CAQ's [restrictive] immigration policy. I'm just not capable of defending those ideas."

If he performs well on the campaign trail, Mr. Legault might still be able to capitalize on Quebeckers' deep desire for regime change. His platform speaks to the province's colossal debt and a weariness with both the student confrontations and corruption scandals engulfing the Liberals and a wariness towards the PQ's sovereignty agenda.

But there's always Mr. Nadeau-Dubois and his cohort to consider.

Born after 1990 or so, this generation came of age during a decade in which sovereigntist embers barely flickered. They are outward-looking and bursting with self-confidence, and have experienced none of the cultural insecurity or grievances that led their forbears to dream of creating a country.

Yet, these youngsters are viscerally Québécois.

"These young people want to re-appropriate the fleur-de-lys and give it meaning," asserts Alain-G. Gagnon, a political science professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

So can all these ruptures be healed ?

Ironically, so far the most tangible impact of the student protests has been to breathe new life into the Liberals. The student protesters challenged the very tenets of representative democracy. Instead, they have given Mr. Charest a new sense of purpose.

Mr. Charest is all but counting on the radical student organization Mr. Nadeau-Dubois leads to create a ruckus when the province's colleges and universities start classes this month. Another violent student uprising against his government might just drive fearful and fed up voters to back the federalist Liberals on Sept. 4. Of course, it also possible that Mr. Charest's attempt to turn the election into a referendum on tuition fees could backfire if voters believe that he provoked the confrontation and prolonged the stand-off by refusing to negotiate with the students for months last spring.

And whether the students themselves, the ones who have proven so vital to a renewed debate about what Quebec should be, can get what they want is unclear: Regardless of the winner of this one election, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois is not harbouring inflated expectations about change. Regardless of the outcome of Sept 4., it is unlikely to end the unrest his generation has fomented.

"The malaise revealed by the student strike," he offers, "is much too profound to be resolved in a single election."

Konrad Yakabuski is the chief political writer in The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau.