Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Whatever happened to those Québec student protests?

It's been a while since the rest of the world heard much about the Québec student protests. After a spring filled with hundred-thousand strong marches, things have died down considerably. There are very few protests in the streets, and hardly anyone is banging on pots.

Given this relative tranquillity, one would think that the issue had been resolved. This, however, is far from being the case. The government and the students never managed to negotiate an agreement, and the legal challenges to Law 78 (which severely restricted the right to protest) are ongoing. So if the disagreements are still outstanding, why is everything so quiet?

The reason that things are currently so calm is that a general election is going to be held in Québec. Premier Jean Charest (who has opposed the students from the beginning) called an election for September 4th, and his principal electoral argument is that Quebeckers have a choice between the "the street" (i.e. the students) and "respect for democracy." He articulates this message clearly in the following English-language campaign ad, "In which Québec do we want to live?":

In a campaign stop in Québec City, Charest hammered away at the same theme:
In the last spring, in the last few months, we heard a lot from a number of student leaders. We've heard from people in the street. We've heard from those who have been hitting away at pots and pans. Now is the time for the silent majority to speak.
In addition to this Nixonian rhetoric, Charest is also brandishing the spectre of a referendum on Québec's independence in order to motivate Anglophone and Federalist voters. He commented, "Like Madame Marois (the sovreigntist Parti Québecois leader) says, you've got the right to choose. Do you want the street and a referendum, or do you want jobs and the economy? Do we want the street and referendums, or do we want democracy?"

Given that Charest is using fear as his central campaign theme, the absolute worst thing for the students to do would be a renewed campaign of protest. Two of the largest student organizations have realized this and have opted to pursue a strategy of laying low. Yet CLASSE, the most radical student organization, has rejected this strategy and has scheduled a large protest for August 22nd. This action, however, may not be particularly successful, as CLASSE's constituent student unions have shown low levels of enthusiasm for continuing the student strike in the context of the general election. This desire to return to class is motivated in part by the serious academic problems that the strike is causing for students, but electoral strategy has undoubtedly played a role as well.

CLASSE has also caused some difficulties for itself when its new, more radical spokesperson, Jeanne Reynolds, had the following exchange with a journalist concerning the outcome of the general elections:
Journalist: Will CLASSE respect the people's decision, whatever it is?

Reynolds: This will be a very important discussion that we will have in our general assembly: do we recognize the legitimacy of this election?
Comments like this, of course, are grist for Jean Charest's mill, as it allows him to position himself as the standard bearer of "respect for democracy."

Beyond the student strike, there are lots of smaller issues that have cropped up in the course of the campaign. Perhaps most amusingly, there's been a recent debate about whether you have to be healthy to be the Minister of Health. This has cropped up because the right-wing party, the CAQ, has nominated Gaetan Barrette, an extremely overweight radiologist, as one of its star candidates. However, as one humorist pointed out, Canada already has a creationist chiropractor as Minister of Science and Technology, so why shouldn't Québec have an obese Health Minister?

For its part, the Parti Québecois has garnered some ridicule with its cheesy theme song, "A Nous de Choisir" ("It's up to us to choose.")

But there's a strong tradition of cheesy and sentimental songs in Québec, so I doubt that this will hurt the PQ much.

In the final analysis, the general election on September 4th may well determine the fate of the current iteration of the Québec student movement. If the Parti Québecois wins, the strike will probably be settled and the students will likely have most of their demands met. If the Liberals or the CAQ win, however, the fall may prove to be just as turbulent as the spring. As before, I'll keep you updated.

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