03/20/2012 10:39 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

In Quebec, it's a tax-rage message vs. student protesters

MONTREAL - The Quebec government turned its rhetorical water-cannons against student protesters in the province after some of them triggered a monster traffic jam by blocking access to a Montreal bridge Tuesday.

In an abrupt shift in tone, the government expressed its frustration with the students and appeared to be using Tuesday's incident on the Champlain Bridge as a launching pad for a broader political message.

With the Charest government deeply unpopular, and facing daily protests with an election approaching, it was casting its controversial tuition hikes in almost zero-sum terms — as a struggle pitting student protesters against the broader army of Quebec taxpayers.

That appeal to tax rage came after an early-morning incident.

An estimated 150 students stood across the Champlain Bridge during rush hour in an attempt to pressure the government to back down. The bridge is notoriously congested on regular days and Tuesday's gesture created traffic bedlam.

The government response came quickly; it delivered a populist message in a morning news scrum by Education Minister Line Beauchamp and Public Security Minister Robert Dutil.

Beauchamp accused the students of "antagonizing the workers who pay for their studies," and of wanting to stick taxpayers with the totality of the rising cost of funding universities.

"It's enough," Beauchamp said.

"First of all, (what they did is) dangerous... Students demanding free university need to realize that they're annoying workers whom they want to leave with the entire bill."

It was a marked departure from the more genteel tone struck by the government in recent weeks as students walked out of their classrooms by the tens of thousands and began joining near-daily protests.

Finance Minister Raymond Bachand did little to calm the students' passions later in the day when he tabled the provincial budget. Any hopes that this year's budget would scale back the fee hikes imposed in 2011-12 were emphatically snuffed out.

"The decision is made. It is irreversible," Bachand told reporters in the budget lockup. He suggested that if student protesters had wanted to make a difference in the issue, they should have intervened sooner.

Student groups responded with a dramatically titled press release: "The fight against the fee hikes will be settled in the streets." Their release called the budget a "slap" against students who have been protesting for weeks.

Eighty students were rounded up by provincial police and fined $494 each after the Champlain Bridge protest. Police warned other students that there would be zero tolerance for anyone blocking expressways.

But there have been, and will continue to be, large protests on regular city streets against the Charest government's fee hikes.

The province is nearly doubling tuition fees over five years, to about $3,800, after a series of $325-a-year increases. However, the rates for in-province students are so low that they would still be among the lowest in Canada, after the hikes.

Students say it's a question of principle — that even modest fee hikes will reduce access to education. More than 200,000 have joined a wave of "strikes" and walked out on their classes.

One student association called the bridge tactic the handiwork of just one small group of protesters.

"A group of students chose this method and sometimes the method obscures the message," said Yanick Gregoire, who belongs to a group representing university students. However, the overall student message has not changed — affordable and accessible education for all.

It remained to be seen whether Tuesday's tactic would have the desired effect on broader public opinion.

Social-networking sites were filled with reaction, much of it irate.

It was a similarly hot topic around some breakfast tables.

One Montrealer muttered to his waiter at a diner on Mont-Royal Avenue that the only the loud people get heard — the ones blocking bridges, staging sit-downs in streets, and wearing little red squares on their lapels to protest the fee hikes.

But he said there's silent agreement from many other Quebecers.

"I think I'm going to start wearing a green (lapel) square — to demonstrate support for the increase," the man told his waiter as he dove into a plate of eggs benedict.

One well-known Quebec humorist offered a more tongue-in-cheek reaction. He referred to the regular frustration many Montrealers feel whenever they use the Champlain Bridge, which is among the busiest in Canada.

"If students really want to make a splash that's out of the ordinary," Stephane Laporte wrote on Twitter, "they would be unblocking the Champlain Bridge."

The action took place just hours before the Charest government was set to table its provincial government. The impending release of the budget also had protesters assembling outside the legislature in Quebec City to denounce the hikes.

The virulence of the government reaction to Tuesday's events suggested it might not be giving up on the idea that there's political hay to be made from the tuition issue.

An election is expected anytime between this spring and late 2013.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version erroneously pegged the value of the annual increases at $500