05/15/2012 04:07 EDT | Updated 07/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Quebec Student Protests Highlighting Quebec's Left-Right Divide

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MONTREAL - After decades of debating independence, Quebec's hottest political disputes are suddenly about the role of the state and its relationship to citizens.

And this left wing-right wing discussion — which many have spent years demanding — is of a surprising intensity.

The ongoing student strikes have exposed some bitter ideological divisions, laid bare in an untold number of exchanges around the province's coffee shops and dinner tables. The divisions were underscored by heated arguments that erupted Tuesday on the streets of Montreal.

"Get a job!" one man shouted at demonstrators, who staged the protest in a city square bustling with office workers.

During that loud confrontation in the city's business district, a group of mostly masked student protesters traded insults with middle-aged passersby.

Students have been gathering regularly for months to condemn the provincial government's plan to raise tuition fees. For many the fight has also morphed into a battle against capitalism.

However, on the other side of that divide, polls suggest most Quebecers actually support higher tuition. If that opposition to the student protests has generally belonged to a silent majority, it became rather loud on St-Antoine Street.

Tuesday's lunch-hour scene featured everything from respectful debate to profanity-laced screams and mild physical contact — including one argument that saw two men literally shouting, nose to nose.

Another woman yelled, at the top of her lungs: "I paid for my education and today I work... You're sleeping — wake up!"

But a protester shouted back: "You're the one who's sleeping, madame."

In the background, dozens of demonstrators chanted the chorus, "One, two, three, four, this is (expletive) class war...."

Such anger over tax rates and spending policy is a contrast from the one issue that has dominated Quebec's political discussion since the 1970s — that of independence.

While other places witnessed deep debates over the economic role of government, Quebecers mainly slugged it out over sovereignty while settling into a centre/centre-left political consensus.

For example, while Ontarians were arguing over the right-wing Common Sense Revolution after 1995, Quebec politicians were mostly preoccupied with a referendum that same year and the subsequent battle over Ottawa's Clarity Act.

More recently, politicians like ex-premier Lucien Bouchard have urged Quebecers to discuss productivity issues. Premier Jean Charest, when first elected in 2003, promised to re-engineer the state and make it more nimble. A former PQ cabinet minister, Francois Legault, has since formed a new political party around the idea that the province must shelve the long-running constitutional debate to move forward.

But such discussions rarely gained much traction. Politicians either backed away from them under threat of protest, or showed little interest.

Now it's as if the province is making up for lost time — and cramming several decades of argument into a few months.

Christian Dufour, who teaches politics at Quebec's school for public administration, said the discourse has shifted to left versus right, though not necessarily in the traditional sense.

Dufour said while the student movement loses support from an increasingly worried public, it's still getting propped up by the opinion-making elite, the baby-boom sovereigntists of the left.

Meaning that many people who oppose the Charest Liberals, and Canadian federalism, have become supporters of the students.

"In that sense it's left-right, but at the same time the student movement is also found somewhere in sovereignty," said Dufour, adding that many student protesters sit at the extreme left.

"The student movement is really something that's new, that is a bit outside the system... It's much more anti-system, anti-establishment, a bit anarchist."

The cleavages are reflected in the demographic limits of the student strikes.

Only about one-third of students are still engaged in walkouts while some schools, and some faculties within schools, have become far more active in the cause.

Bitter differences are also flaring up at family dinner tables.

One blogger recently wrote how he became enraged by his mother when she told him she hated prominent student-movement leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.

"I was angry," Raphael Ouellet wrote in an April 30 blog posting on the website for Urbania magazine. "A little too much.

"I almost insulted my own mother."

In Quebec City, the Charest government has been looking to cut a new economic path. And perhaps the most ardent proponent of this fresh course has been Finance Minister Raymond Bachand.

In two consecutive budgets Bachand ramped up user fees for everything from education, to hunting permits, the sales tax and hydro rates. It backed down from a similar move with health user fees.

His stated logic was simple: shift some of the fiscal burden away from the average Quebec taxpayer, who pays the highest personal-income rate on the continent, onto the shoulders of each person who uses a service. In other words, a fiscal philosophy based a little less on solidarity and a little more on individual responsibility.

Bachand has called his plan a "cultural revolution." In one oft-quoted line, he's also brushed aside concerns that he was disturbing the province's political orthodoxy.

"Sacred cows only exist in India," Bachand has said.

Recent events across Quebec, however, suggest that some view low tuition as a sacred right. For many, the objective is not just to freeze fees where they are — at the lowest level in Canada — but to pursue the ultimate goal of zero tuition and easier access to university.

There are also whispers of broader systemic change from some protest groups.

On Tuesday, Bachand castigated "anti-capitalist" and "Marxist" groups that he says are trying to destabilize Montreal's economy.

He insisted their fight goes way beyond the $254-a-year tuition hikes.

Dozens of boisterous protesters indeed marched Tuesday through the economic heart of Montreal to voice their demands for change.

But several bystanders didn't buy their argument.

One man complained that protesting students were wearing expensive headphones, while carrying iPhones and BlackBerries.

Another said their demonstrations have simply gone on too long.

"I was just fed up," said Caroline Aubin, explaining why she engaged in an impassioned shouting match with a group of demonstrators.

"Everyone has to do their part... I think we're quite spoiled in Quebec."

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