MONTREAL - Race-car champion Jacques Villeneuve has apparently received threats since he took the rare step, for a Quebec celebrity, of blasting the province's student movement.
Villeneuve would not provide details but said Friday he had received some "dangerous" emails since the previous evening. People were reacting to his lengthy criticism of the student protests which he characterized as, among other things, an international embarrassment.
The comments caused quite a stir.
Villeneuve was instantly catapulted into a starring role in a four-month dispute that has made international news. With Quebec celebrities mainly remaining silent or lining up behind the protesters, the race-car driver was suddenly the movement's most famous, most virulent critic.
Thousands have since been weighing in on social-media sites — with many regular people supporting Villeneuve and many more, including some prominent Quebecers, castigating him and almost nobody expressing indifference.
The race-car driver is refusing to back down. That's despite having received a torrent of emails that he says haven't always been flattering.
"We received a pack of injurious and insulting emails, even some that were dangerous," Villeneuve said.
"For people who say they stand for freedom of expression, I find it a bit ridiculous that we're not allowed to say what we're thinking."
He also said that if protesters make good on a plan to jam the Montreal subway system on Sunday — the day of the Formula One Grand Prix race — their act will amount to domestic terrorism.
Quebec's student protesters have cast their movement as a defence of democratic principles, given that the ongoing strikes have been ratified after votes at student assemblies.
They say it's the elected provincial government that is undemocratic — because it's ignored the votes and passed a special law setting limits on street protests. About one-third of students are on strike.
The protesters are now using Montreal's four-day Formula One Grand Prix festivities to raise awareness for their fight against tuition hikes. Close to 40 people were arrested Thursday night as protesters scuffled with police.
Further demonstrations are scheduled throughout the weekend, including a plan to swarm the lone subway line that reaches the race site on Sunday.
The race-car driver now has at least one thing in common with the most high-profile Quebec protest leader, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, who says he has has received multiple threats during the four-month conflict.
In a five-minute exchange with reporters Thursday, Villeneuve urged the protesters to go back to school.
He suggested they were lazy. He called them an embarrassment to Canada — especially to Quebec. He suggested they were badly raised, by parents who never learned to say, 'No.'
And he said they risked scaring away tourists and wealthy taxpayers, who would just pick up and invest elsewhere in a more stable climate.
A common point raised by Villeneuve's online critics was his own wealthy upbringing, as the Monaco-raised son of the late race-car hero Gilles Villeneuve. Some wondered how a race-car driver was qualified to offer economic commentary. Others called him spoiled.
Some said it wasn't his opinion that angered them — but the insulting way in which he expressed it.
Even a man who dresses up as a panda, a popular mascot at the Montreal protests, took an uncharacteristically angry shot at the driver: "Anarchopanda is profoundly pacifist, but he would maybe make an exception for Jacques Villeneuve," he wrote on Twitter.
But a fair number of Villeneuve defenders said it was refreshing to hear a celebrity finally say out loud what so many Quebecers are thinking in private.
Polls suggest that while the Charest government remains deeply unpopular, its tuition hikes actually have the support of a comfortable majority of Quebecers.
-With files by Marc Tougas and Alexander Panetta
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