He acts like a premier preparing for an election, but Jean Charest insists he has no such plan in mind.
The Quebec Premier stepped up on Friday to present modest concessions to protesting students that were doomed to be rejected from the start. He offered to extend a planned $1,625 tuition hike over seven years instead of five, and to beef up student aid to include more middle-class families. At the same time, Mr. Charest said he would index the increase to inflation, adding a poison pill that made the offer even harder for students to swallow.
With daily demonstrations now stretching long into the night and outbursts of vandalism and arrests, student leaders said the offer is unlikely to entice protesters away from their long-stated goal of getting the increase cancelled entirely. Mr. Charest's event was mostly aimed at the wider Quebec public, a healthy majority of which endorses the tuition hike but has a deep, long-standing well of disapproval for Mr. Charest's overall job performance.
Speculation the Premier is preparing an election platform opposing social strife hit a fever pitch this week, fuelled by backroom whispers and Mr. Charest's campaign-style promotion of the Plan Nord, his economic development program for Quebec's north. While seeking a new mandate from voters in the midst of student protests seems far from ideal, the other top political issue in Quebec is corruption – hardly a winning one for a government facing the spectacle of a public inquiry later this year.
Mr. Charest bitterly denied that he would use the student strike as an issue in an election, which must be called by the end of 2013. (He later apologized for the harsh tone directed at the reporter who posed the question.)
"I find it grotesque, grotesque to think the government would make use of a crisis for some political calculation, some partisan calculation," Mr. Charest said. "We deserve better." Later, in an interview with Radio-Canada, he said the government had no election "programmed" for the spring, a denial likely to fuel further speculation.
Mr. Charest made similar proclamations in October, 2008, citing the economic crisis as a vital reason to avoid going to the polls. Three weeks later, his campaign bus hit the road. Students and opposition politicians certainly weren't buying the denials this week.
"The government is playing politics on the back of students," said Martine Desjardins, president of the province's federation of university students. "We're going to step back and sit down with [our members]to find a way out of this crisis."
Recent clashes with police during demonstrations and Quebeckers' growing exasperation over the conflict have increased pressure on Mr. Charest, who made it clear he is willing to sacrifice the winter session of students who refuse to return to school. "We will never yield to violence and blackmail," he said.
"This isn't a macho match about winning and losing and calculations. This is about the future of Quebec. All this language frankly needs to be toned down."
The new measures will cost the government about $50-million and will be paid for in part through the current university funding formula. University heads who have been managing the crisis within divided institutions said they could live with the plan.
At the Université de Montréal, the province's largest, rector Guy Breton had expected to receive an extra $7.5-million in annual revenue for the next five years – or 1 per cent of his $750-million operating budget. On a seven-year plan, it would be closer to $5-million.
"I'm willing to manage with a tighter budget if it is the compromise that we need," he said on Friday, adding that much of Mr. Charest's proposal echoes suggestions he made privately to the government weeks ago.
But the change still comes with a cost. Dr. Breton expects to delay new projects for a year or two, and to pull back on funding for students, given that 35 per cent of the new revenue is earmarked for expanded financial aid. "I'm not sure that we will be able to give [as much]in grants," he said.
Mr. Charest waited 11 weeks to soften the tuition blow, and it may be because he underestimated student resolve. While thousands of students have taken to the streets in a well-orchestrated campaign, only 38 per cent of postsecondary students are actually skipping class, according to boycott organizers.
At U de M, for example, about 70 per cent of students will finish the term "no problem," Dr. Breton said. For the other 30 per cent, it's a "matter of days" until they hit the point of no return.
The campus divisions have clearly taken a toll. "I'm surviving in hell," Dr. Breton said.
With a report from James Bradshaw