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Canada Tensions challenge Quebec’s anti-austerity student protest movement

Thousands march during a student-led protest against the provincial government's austerity measures in Montreal, April 2, 2015.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS

Cracks are appearing inside Quebec's student protest movement, raising questions about the future of fledgling street demonstrations targeting the provincial Liberals' austerity measures.

The divisions are roiling the group at the forefront of student mobilization against the government of Premier Philippe Couillard. According to several reports, the executive of the group, known by its acronym ASSÉ, has either quit or was pushed out.

The tensions challenge a movement that was already showing less unity than the Quebec student unrest three years ago dubbed the Maple Spring.

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In 2012, monster street protests against Quebec tuition fee hikes gained public sympathy and political support from the opposition Parti Québécois. The Liberal government of the day lost the election to the PQ, and the tuition hikes were cancelled.

The Couillard government approaches the one-year anniversary of its election this Tuesday after making austerity a centrepiece of its mandate. While Montreal has witnessed anti-austerity marches in recent weeks, the 2015 version of the student spring appears to be as tentative as the arrival of warm weather.

For one, this year's mobilization lacks the singularity of purpose of the one three years ago. The target of the protests – mainly austerity, but also fossil-fuel development – is more diffuse. Charismatic student leadership has been lacking and fewer students have voted to join the walkout. Quebec has also taken a tougher stand with the students, telling them they can't count on the government to pay for makeup courses.

And, ever since about 60,000 students walked out of classes late last month, those opposed to the so-called student strike are more organized. A group called Fondation 1625 has been vocal in speaking out against strong-arm tactics used by some of the protesting students, such as blocking classroom access to those who want to keep studying.

"The public really doesn't approve of those kinds of gestures," said Miguaël Bergeron, a Laval University administration student and spokesman for the group, said on Sunday from Quebec City.

He said the latest tensions indicate that the protest movement is struggling. "We're not crying victory, but we see that the student strike isn't working out as well as they'd hoped." Mr. Bergeron's group is named for the $1,625 increase in tuition fees over five years proposed by Premier Jean Charest in 2012.

The student tensions that came to a head over the weekend were over the timetable for the student protests. The leadership of the ASSÉ – the French acronym for Association for Student Union Solidarity – proposed suspending its general strike until the fall, to make common cause with the province's public-sector unions.

The student association had called it a "strategic withdrawal" from the current walkout. According to reports, the strategy didn't go over well with more militant members of the association.

A spokesman for the ASSÉ, which was meeting for a closed-door general assembly meeting, declined to respond to requests for comment on Sunday. A dissident-wing member who asked to remain anonymous said the executive was forced to resign.

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