A student protest designed to send an anti-government message in the midst of a Quebec election campaign was broken up by riot police Wednesday.
The protesters had been blocking the entrance to the Hydro-Quebec power utility building in Montreal and, after several objects were tossed at police officers, the crowd was forced to disperse.
The events unfolded at a politically unpredictable juncture: during an election campaign, and on a week when students are holding votes on whether to extend their strikes against tuition hikes.
There was a surprise development late Wednesday. Montreal Le Devoir reported that the best-known spokesman for the more militant student faction called the CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, had resigned.
He blamed the government for demonizing the movement and also cited the challenges of serving as one of the public faces of an organization that was resolutely non-hierarchical.
It's unclear whether most students will choose to head back to class — and how that decision might affect the election campaign. It has been accepted as conventional wisdom in Quebec, however, that continued unrest might encourage voters to re-elect the Charest Liberals out of spite.
Students at some schools have voted to return to class. Other student groups, meanwhile, have voted to continue their protest, while more assemblies are scheduled over the next week.
The protest Wednesday was organized by the CLASSE group.
Protesters voiced their opposition to user fees imposed by the Charest government — which include not only tuition increases but also higher rates for electricity.
The riot squad moved in and chased the 200-odd demonstrators down a busy downtown boulevard. Some people dressed in black and wearing masks tried to get into building by the back, but they were dispersed again.
The Liberal leader is downplaying talk that continuing unrest might benefit his party.
Jean Charest said Wednesday that more conflict is the "last thing" he wants, as a political leader and as a father.
He said that he expects students to respect the law, and for teachers to teach. Mr. Charest's controversial Bill 78 imposes stiff fines on anyone who blocks a school, as protesters did in some cases last spring.
"It's time to bring everyone back to their responsibilities, and duties, as citizens," Mr. Charest told a campaign news conference.
"The law says what? It says a Quebec student has a right to an education and the right to enter his classroom. Is that too much to ask? ... I don't think so."
The Parti Québécois is also asking the students to go back to school and, after the election, it promises to scrap Bill 78 and scrub the tuition hikes being protested if it wins.
The new Coalition Avenir Quebec has sought a middle-ground solution, with smaller tuition hikes than those proposed by the Liberals.
But it has struck a tougher tone than any party against teachers. If schools open, and teachers refuse to teach out of solidarity with students still on strike, the party says they deserve punishment.
"I can't imagine that we would pay teachers," CAQ Leader Francois Legault said, following suggestions that some professors are hesitant to teach without the support of student assemblies.
"I cannot accept that. Those people are paid to teach."
Mr. Legault said people needed to take responsibility for their actions — "and in Quebec, that's what we're lacking."
He also heaped scorn on the PQ's attempt to please all sides in the debate, by asking students to respect the law and then promising to scrap the law after the election. Mr. Legault likened the PQ position to a "cha-cha" dance, with a few steps to the front, and a few steps back.
One protester said Wednesday it's important to do what's right — not to base every action on political calculations.
Protester Danick Bonette said students should not throw in the towel. Whatever they do, he said, Mr. Charest will seek to take credit so they might as well stick to their convictions.
"We are going to stand up for what we think is right for society and for students," he said.
"I'm aware of what people are saying but if we go calmly back to school (Charest) is going to say 'With my law, I put everything back in order.'
"It's kind of a win-win situation for him so we have to do what is best. And that's why students are divided. Some of us think we need to continue, some of us think we need to stop for the election."
With files by Andy Blatchford