The Quebec Student Strike: the Meaning of a Crisis

It’s not surprising, then, that numerous social and political players have brought forward proposals of their own in the heat of the moment, with positions ranging from delaying the government’s proposed tuition hike until after the year 2012 (the Parti Québécois) to uncompromisingly maintaining the hike (the CAQ) [the new right-wing party in Quebec — NSW] to simply proposing a moratorium (the FNEEQ [Quebec faculty union — NSW] professors and personalities from civil society) to the extension of the freeze on tuition fees coupled with the progressive establishment of free post-secondary education (Québec Solidaire).

But even then the government — and this is what is apparently incomprehensible — doesn’t seem to want to budge, even at the cost of a minimal compromise. It is as if, as in the past (remember Mount Orford, the Suroît power station, the Charbonneau investigative commission, etc), it cannot measure the importance of the revolt it is facing and contents itself with standing obstinately firm on its positions. Add to this the massive police repression it is using while pretending — how cynical! — that the students are responsible for it and the argument put forward by [cabinet minister — NSW] Line Beauchamp to justify ending negotiations with the CLASSE appears in its true guise: a crude stratagem that allows it to cut the discussions short while hoping to divide the movement and divert its more moderate wing in a maneuver. But it solves nothing — on the contrary!

How petty of them to try to demonize a young, 21 year-old student representative [Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of CLASSE — NSW] who everyone else agrees is a quality spokesperson and has undeniable courage! In counterpoint, of course, to these clever quibbles, taken up by so many journalists, about the electoral calculation that supposedly motivates the premier and brings him to want to incarnate law and order — a way to try to outdo the CAQ and win the next election. As if that should or could justify it all! And anyway, wouldn’t such machiavellian calculations show that they are formidably mistaken about what is happening?

A Particularly Telling Indicator

In order to understand this situation, we must think beyond the demand of a freeze on tuition fees and also beyond the falling popularity rating of Premier Charest. Because this 2012 student struggle rather appears as a particularly telling indicator of deep changes that are transforming Quebec’s physiognomy. We know — it’s not a secret to anyone — that the neoliberal mode of economic regulation has changed the face of education in Quebec, by dully pushing for its commodification (which includes, amongst other measures, the hike in tuition fees). But it is not as clear whether everyone has taken notice of the changes that echo this transformation in social and political realms.

This cold reign of the economic, this “everything to the market,” this political discourse dominated by business interests (think of the Plan Nord!), have ended up producing sound collective reactions. The first of these is a growing and inextinguishible thirst for democracy, which the latest revelations about multiple corruption scandals have only amplified. After all, shouldn’t the premier be the premier of all, and not simply, as a commercial clerk, for bankers and mining companies? One need only think of the huge protest on Earth Day, April 22, of this quiet thirst for change that sounds from everywhere. And, in contrast to Minister Line Beauchamp’s stubborn answers, to understand the importance of the gap that has grown between not only the youth but also a great part of the living forces of this country and the political representatives supposed to speak in their name.

The Echo of Muffled Social Unrest

This explains the strength of the striking students, who don’t only make demands for themselves, but who in their own way are making themselves the echo of growing social unrest, and thereby feel invested with true legitimacy. From this flows, too, these new forms of struggle and expression, this desire for direct, participatory democracy, for sovereign assemblies, for spokespersons that are answerable to their congresses. And finally, this de facto rupture with traditional Quebecois trade unionism, so often made of compromises and top-down agreements.

Of course, this social upheaval is finding only an imperfect political expression for now. As long as other social sectors don’t follow in its footsteps (and first and foremost the trade union mouvement), it could lead to quite uncertain and volatile situations. But it has nonetheless opened a great window that, with the gushes of fresh air it has let in, should not close up soon.

One thing is certain: in such a context of hopes and fractures, the path of contempt, denial and police violence that has taken Jean Charest up to now in order to build political capital and appear as the man of law and order, has very little chance of success. Because, with the weariness that has grown in the past nine years, it is not simply a specific political decision that is contested by large sectors of the population today, but a whole model and an autocratic mode of government. If he stays stuck in this obstinate posture of refusal, that is what everyone will keep in mind when election time comes. After all, even the tireless, demagogic Sarkozy is about to give in!

April 26, 2012

This article first appeared in the Quebecois radical online publication Presse-Toi A Gauche.Translation by Gabrielle Gérin