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Controversial Quebec student group spokesman blasts Charest in exit letter

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for CLASSE, the largest and most militant of the three main student groups organizing the Quebec student strike, poses in Montreal on May 7, 2012.

christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

TThe Quebec student leader at the centre of the turbulence that rocked the province this spring has resigned his post just as a new round of protests threatens to disrupt the provincial election campaign.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, 21, revealed his decision to step down as co-spokesman for the most radical student group known as the CLASSE in a letter published Thursday in the Montreal French-language daily Le Devoir.

"I'm leaving with a single regret. I regret quitting my post while Quebec is still run by [Liberal Leader] Jean Charest, a premier who is contemptuous of and violent toward Quebec and its youth," Mr. Nadeau-Dubois wrote, citing a list of Charest policies his group has fought against. "And when the youth rose up against these absurdities, Mr. Charest only responded with the hardness of clubs and the acidity of tear gas."

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Mr. Nadeau-Dubois, who became a lightning rod for the Premier's criticism, quickly emerged as the voice of a new generation and has enjoyed relative star status in the province. But the violence of some protests, which his group stopped short of outright condemning, has also made him a controversial figure and a useful foil for Mr. Charest among the "silent majority" of Quebec voters perturbed by the unrest in Montreal.

In Quebec City, Mr. Charest refused to characterize Mr. Nadeau-Dubois' resignation as a victory for the Quebec government. He said the issue is ensuring a safe return to school next week in the colleges that were shut down during the strikes in the spring, and that the debate is not about personalities.

"I don't wish him any harm, I'm only seeking what is good for Quebeckers," Mr. Charest said.

Thousands of Quebec students at various institutions have already voted to boycott classes when colleges and universities return this month. A new round of student strikes would have put Mr. Nadeau once more in the spotlight. His image might have been exploited by the Liberals, who are running on an "order and stability" platform.

Mr. Nadeau-Dubois recently completed a tour of Quebec and he was not greeted warmly in all corners of the province. That may have figured into his decision to step down.

"I know our fight is entering a new phase, a phase that requires renewal," Mr. Nadeau-Dubois wrote. "I've done my part as spokesperson. It is now time for others to take over."

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois said she didn't always agree with Mr. Nadeau-Dubois but she had a great deal of respect for him. "You have to admit that he was able to defend his point of view with intelligence and audacity, sometimes with exaggeration. But if you can't exaggerate at 20 years old, you risk become quite boring by the time you hit 60," Ms. Marois noted during a campaign stop in Saguenay on Thursday.

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The PQ Leader was critical of the way Mr. Charest treated the student leaders, saying he refused to respect the principles they've been defending.

"It's sad to have a Premier demonize our youth the way he's done," she said, adding that Mr. Nadeau-Dubois should not be held responsible for the violent confrontations that occurred in some demonstrations.

The CLASSE has two other co-spokespersons, Camille Robert and Jeanne Reynolds. Their profiles are certain to rise with the return to classes and Mr. Nadeau-Dubois's absence. The protests began over the Charest government's proposal to increase university tuition fees by 75 per cent over five years. But they soon ballooned into a movement against a string of government moves perceived as favouring the rich and harming the environment.

In an interview with Le Devoir, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said he will "never forgive" Mr. Charest for comments he made during an April speech promoting his plan to open up Quebec's north while police clashed with protesters outside.

"While there were seriously wounded people and extremely rough confrontations outside, the only thing the Premier had to say was to make jokes in bad taste with his business friends," Mr. Nadeau-Dubois said. "That remains stuck in my throat."

With reports from Daniel Leblanc in Quebec City and Rhéal Séguin in Saguenay

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