MONTREAL - Divisions in Quebec's protest movement erupted into public view Tuesday, with masked demonstrators disrupting a news conference held by the province's more moderate student groups.
The bizarre scene, featuring black-clad anonymous spectators heckling the student leaders, raised new questions about whether the Charest government can ever negotiate a satisfactory settlement with the various protest factions.
"This illustrates that the student movement is not monolithic," said Education Minister Line Beauchamp. "Frankly, it's getting a little hard to follow."
The two student groups holding the news conference were trying to release a series of proposals to the government, aimed at resolving a weeks-long dispute over tuition.
Even before their so-called "counter-offer" was made, it was already doomed. The seven-point plan included a proposal for a tuition freeze, something the Charest government has repeatedly called a non-starter. The rejection from Beauchamp was swift and adamant Tuesday.
But even that offer — the one deemed unacceptable by the government — did not go far enough, according to the small group that crashed the event.
The masked protesters repeatedly heckled the student leaders and at one point forced an interruption of the news conference.
"(Your) counter-offer: (It's) mud and crumbs," said one large banner held up by the news conference-crashers in the back of the room.
The third main student federation, the most hardline one — called the C.L.A.S.S.E. — will be tabling its own proposals later this week.
There's no evidence Tuesday's hecklers were formally affiliated with any official student group. However, one of the masked demonstrators said, without revealing his identity, that he was represented by the C.L.A.S.S.E.
There have been heated disputes at recent demonstration marches in Montreal, over how radical to get and over whether to allow a so-called "diversity" of protest tactics, like vandalism.
Window-smashers and other vandals have been booed, shoved aside and heckled by more peaceful demonstrators who believe the key to success for their cause is remaining calm and winning public sympathy — which they say is undermined by the association with vandalism.
The proposals released Tuesday by the two student federations call for:
—A committee to monitor management of universities
—A limit, to three per cent, of university expenses that are peripheral to education
—An analysis of arrangements between businesses and universities, when it comes to patents
—A two-year moratorium on university funding increases
—A five-year moratorium on construction of new campuses
—An estates-general, or roving consultations, on education
—A freeze on tuition at 2012 level