Student leaders and the Charest government in Quebec appear to be on the verge of an agreement aimed at resolving an unprecedented 15-week conflict over tuition fee hikes.
No details were released after negotiations concluded Tuesday night in Quebec City.
According to student negotiators, a deal seemed imminent and talks on Wednesday could produce a tentative agreement. The contentious fee increases that triggered the conflict are set to go into effect in September.
"We discussed several scenarios and we will take the day on Wednesday to continue negotiations," Léo Bureau-Blouin, president of the federation of college students, said after the talks ended at 11 p.m.
"We will be back [Wednesday]because talks are progressing, because scenarios were discussed at the table," said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the spokesperson for the student group CLASSE. "So we will take the night and [Wednesday]morning with the hope of striking a deal that we can submit to our members for ratification."
Meanwhile, for the second night in succession, a group of about 200 protesters gathered outside the building where the talks are being held to demonstrate against Charest government policies and in support of the student movement.
Unlike Monday night, police remained on the sidelines and allowed the demonstration to take place. No arrests were made.
After Premier Jean Charest made an unannounced appearance at Monday's round of talks, there has been a sense that a breakthrough in the conflict was close.
As the negotiations headed into their second day, both sides seemed determined to resolve the issue that has become a lighting rod for a much broader protest movement in recent weeks against the Charest government.
"I met the students [Monday]for about an hour – around 50 minutes – and we exchanged on a number of issues," Mr. Charest told reporters earlier on Tuesday. "We are in a new phase. … I hope it will send a signal that the government wants to arrive at the best possible solution."
The government has come under a great deal of pressure, especially from the business community, to end the nightly demonstrations of protesters banging on pots and pans that threaten to disrupt the lucrative summer tourist industry. The images have been picked up by the international press and there are concerns the province's reputation abroad is taking a hit.
Earlier Tuesday, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne wouldn't confirm that a deal was in the making. "I'm satisfied with the degree of openness shown by the students," she said. "I said [Monday]that the responsibilities had to be shared to get results but I won't say any more."
Given the tone of discussions on Monday and the fact that Ms. Courchesne was given a mandate to settle the conflict, taking whatever time was needed, student groups believed they were on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Mr. Charest's brief presence at the talks on Monday, the first time since the beginning of the crisis that the Premier has personally met the students, failed to impress those at the table.
"The Premier was here [Monday]not for an hour, but only for 30 minutes," said Martine Desjardins, the president of the Federation of University Students. "We had several questions about the financing of universities. He had few answers and left us in the hands of Ms. Courchesne."
But his short exchange with the students persuaded them that a deal was in the making and that the government was now serious about resolving the conflict.
Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois appeared in Superior Court, accused of contempt of court after encouraging students to block the entrance to colleges in defiance of an injunction ordering the resumption of classes.
Under the emergency legislation adopted by the Charest government on May 18, the winter semester was suspended until August because of the student strike, and the numerous court injunctions ordering the resumption of classes were cancelled. However, one of the law's provisions, dubbed by the opposition as the "Nadeau-Dubois" clause, allowed for contempt-of-court cases to be heard. Mr. Nadeau-Dubois was the only individual facing a contempt-of-court charge under the past injunctions.
The court heard evidence and the case was remanded until September.