MONTREAL - Jean Charest had fighting words for Quebec's student protesters as he called the provincial election. On Wednesday night, they punched back.
As the premier summoned Quebecers to vote in the Sept. 4 election, he said he is counting on a silent majority who are fed up with the student dispute to return him to office.
Within hours of his words being uttered, Montreal's streets erupted into a cacophony of clanging pots, honking horns, rattling drums and vulgar chants telling Charest where he could put his tuition fee hikes.
The late-night clashes, which resulted in 15 arrests and property damage, will no doubt resonate into Thursday as Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois heads to the Laval-des-Rapides riding near Montreal to campaign alongside one her star candidates, Leo Bureau-Blouin, who was one of the leaders of the student movement until a few weeks ago.
Charest has tried to cast his chief rival as irresponsible for encouraging the spring protests and even recruiting one of its leaders as a candidate. She and members of her caucus had worn the red square symbol of the student movement before ditching in for Fete nationale in June.
Wednesday's march ended several weeks of calm.
"We're not happy," said a student who would only identify himself as Sebastien.
"(Charest) said he wants to talk to real Quebecers but the street (protesters) are the middle class and it's the most important part of the population."
His friend, a junior college student who gave his name as Leo, said he is prepared to protest until there are serious negotiations, something he said hasn't happened in the past.
"It was never an exchange between two persons," he said, adding Charest had only used talks with student leaders a few months ago to defend his government.
Thousands of mostly young people filled the streets Wednesday night in stark contrast to recent nighttime marches which had dwindled down to a handful of people, many of them grizzled and grey-haired. Organizers had called for a big show for the 100th nighttime march of the protest and they got it.
One man carried a sign with the blinking number 100 on it while another hoisted a giant red banner with the same number emblazoned across it.
A Chinese tourist saw the march as it wound along Sherbrooke Street and watched it in awe, asking a passerby what it was. When told it was a student protest march, the tourist said in astonishment as he watched the masses pass, "How many universities do you have in Montreal?"
While the demonstration started peacefully enough with a boisterous drum band in the lead and the banging of pots and pans sounding a clarion call with an almost festive tone, the mood shifted as Roman candle-style fireworks soared above the marchers and exploded with loud bangs.
A car reportedly slammed into one protester amid a crowd marching in the street. The victim suffered injuries not deemed life-threatening. Police said they had a description of a vehicle's licence plate and model and were investigating a possible hit-and-run.
At one point, police say projectiles such as bottles were thrown at them and riot-equipped officers clashed with the crowd, making the first of 15 arrests during the night. Two windows were reported smashed by the end and one police car was damaged.
One man in a dress shirt and pants, who was not believed to be part of the protest, had to be helped by friends away from one clash. His head lolled back as he pressed a bloody handkerchief to his face until he angrily waved it at rubberneckers, snarling, "Here's your damned red square," referring to the symbol of the protest movement.
He made it to a group of paramedics on bicycles before sinking onto the sidewalk where an oxygen mask was applied to his face.
Moments later, dumpsters were overturned and placed across Ste-Catherine Street in the downtown shopping core to block police on horseback and in cars from following the mob but the equestrian squad steered their massive beasts onto the sidewalk to continue the pursuit.
Some protesters were dressed in black and were wearing face masks — a common sight this spring during demonstrations that made international news.
The crowd marched past Charest's office in downtown Montreal, passing a long line of riot cops who eyed the protesters from behind the visors of their helmets and clutched their batons to their chests.
But the Montreal marchers had to be content with a darkened building, unlike protesters in Quebec City who jeered at the premier at a Liberal campaign event in the city.
The nighttime march and protests against the government's controversial demonstration law, Bill 78, was clearly geared Wednesday to address the election.
"Let's show the Liberal party we have not forgotten their track record and that we WILL vote in the next elections,'' said a Facebook invitation to the event.
Earlier Wednesday, Quebec student federations said they would work to increase youth turnout and knock off the governing party in specific ridings, including Charest's and those held by high-profile cabinet ministers such as Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier, Public Security Minister Robert Dutil and Finance Minister Raymond Bachand.
Student protesters plan to visit nearly three dozen Liberal ridings, said Martine Desjardins, who heads the university student federation.
They will not tell anyone whom to vote for — only whom to vote against.
"We will not encourage young people, or citizens, to vote for the Liberals, because we judge them very harshly.''
The student federations have launched a website that will judge the different parties on a number of issues including tuition fees, ethics and the environment.
At a news conference, Charest said protesters have a right to go after him and that's what democracy is all about. He also suggested all the noise might backfire on the protesters, come the Sept. 4 election day.
"Now is the time for the silent majority to speak,'' Charest said in Quebec City on Wednesday.
"In the last few months we've 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.''