The Quebec government's battle against student protesters deepened Friday, with both sides exchanging threats one day after a memorable protest.
Students warned that they would target vulnerable ridings held by Jean Charest's Liberals while some even warned of gestures that might disrupt the economy.
Education Minister Line Beauchamp shot back with a warning of her own: get back to class, or there will be consequences. More than 200,000 students have been boycotting classes and staging frequent protests against tuition hikes.
"At this point, the students must understand that the biggest disturbance will be in their own lives," Beauchamp said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "Boycotting class will result in disrupting their lives. It could mean an extension of the session, makeup classes, possibly at night."
Although she didn't set a deadline, Beauchamp said the ball is in the students' court and they have some crucial decisions to make when they vote over the next few days on whether or not to continue the protest.
"The decision is in the hands of the students," she said.
Student leaders pointed Friday to a monster march a day before as clear evidence of how their supporters can mobilize as Quebec looks toward its next provincial election, which has to be called by 2013.
Liberal members who were narrowly elected to the legislature will be on their radar and their offices will be targeted, the student leaders said at a news conference in Montreal.
But future protests would try to avoid snarling traffic and blocking commuter bridges, something that has brought an angry outcry from average citizens.
One man, who said he supported the students, even posted a volcanic rant on YouTube after he got caught in a student-sparked jam on Montreal's Champlain Bridge on Tuesday.
Then there was a large Montreal demonstration on Thursday, which came two days after the provincial budget and a blunt refusal by Premier Jean Charest's government to back down on the hikes.
The province is nearly doubling tuition fees over five years, to about $3,800. It will reach its target with a series of $325-a-year increases. However, the tuition fees in the province will still be among the lowest in Canada even after the hikes.
Leo Bureau-Blouin, one of the student leaders, said Friday the position of the government is extremely frustrating for the students and he warned the situation could worsen if the government continues to turn a deaf ear to students' demands.
"I think there's a danger that it could flare up, especially if the government maintains its hard line for the next week," he said. "At some point it will become a real social crisis. People will demonstrate every day, they will disrupt the offices of members of the legislature and I will not have any control."
Beauchamp was unmoved.
"The decision has been made," she said in Quebec City. There's no chance of negotiation since the positions of the government and the students are irreconcilable, she said.
"The student associations are defending two options — one wants to talk about completely free (education), the others wants to maintain the freeze and send the bill to other people. It's a bit of 'not in my backyard' and that can't be a basis for discussion."
Beauchamp was pleased that Thursday's march was peaceful but refused to call the event "historic" as some had or liken it to the Arab Spring. Some students have been calling the protests the "Printemps Erable," or "Maple Spring," which in French is a play on the phrase, "Printemps Arabe."
"It was a big demonstration but it brought together the usual players," she said, noting the students were supported by unions as well as the Parti Quebecois and the smaller Quebec solidaire party.
Opposition Leader Pauline Marois, who was once education minister in a government that floated tuition-fee increases before being forced to retreat, has said she would repeal any increases if the PQ takes power.
Montreal police estimated Thursday's crowd, which spanned several kilometres across dozens of city blocks, at around 100,000. It is considered by observers to be one of the largest demonstrations ever in Quebec.
Martine Desjardins, one of the student organizers, said it was difficult to organize Thursday's march but she is happy with the results.
"We commend the peaceful nature of the demonstration," she said. "We can say 'mission accomplished'.
"We're waiting for the government to also act responsibly and open discussions with the students. It is time to settle this conflict because the students are more and more determined."
One political scientist says that while low tuition is unsustainable, Charest likely underestimated the ferocity of the student opposition because young people do not usually vote in significant numbers.
"I think the assumption was that these people aren't going to vote — but suddenly these people are mobilizing," said Bruce Hicks, a political scientist at Montreal's Concordia University. "They're going to the streets, they're having demonstrations and they could actually vote.
"This could have a very negative effect on the Charest government," he said. "This would mean that the PQ would actually win the next election in Quebec."
Besides that, Hicks said that Charest, whose government is already deeply unpopular, probably didn't expect such good weather in recent days. Usually, libraries would be packed with students cramming for exams, doing papers or surfing the Internet.
"Had this been a typical spring I don't think we would have as many demonstrations and as many people in the streets as we've been having. It's gorgeous out."
(With files from Nelson Wyatt)
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