Sovereigntist PQ leader Marois walks a fine line on tuition fees in Québec

The day after Jean Charest, Québec’s premier, launched a snap election for September 4, his principal rival, Pauline Marois, came out in clear contrast to Charest on perhaps the most high-profile issues in the election (short of Québec’s sovereignty): tuition hike fees for students.

Marois (pictured above, right), the leader of the leftist, sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ), promised to take a radically different approach to tuition fees in the province: cancel the planned hikes, revoke the controversial emergency protest law (Bill 78) and convene a summit within 100 days of election on the issue of university funding.

While Marois is taking a very understated position on Québécois sovereignty and any future referendum on an independent Québec, she is not shying away from embracing a contrast to Charest on the student tuition issue.  Indeed, one of the most impressive and eloquent of the student leaders from those negotiations, Léo Bureau-Blouin (pictured above, left), at age 20, is among the PQ’s marquee candidates in the upcoming election — he’ll be running against a junior minister in Charest’s government in a riding in Laval, a suburb of Montréal.

Earlier this year, a battle between Charest’s government and student protesters ended in somewhat chaotic protests throughout Montréal.  Students protested the hikes, which amounted to a $1,625 increase over seven years — a 75% increase over what Québec students pay today (although the total would be far less than what students in other Canadian provinces pay).  Ultimately, Charest’s education minister, Line Beauchamp, resigned over the impasse with student leaders in negotiations over the hikes, and Charest’s current education minister is not running for reelection.

Charest responded to the protests by passing Bill 78, which makes any gathering of over 50 people illegal unless they tell police in advance the start time, finish time and route of such gathering.  Although the bill is just a temporary measure, expiring on July 1, 2013, it brought international condemnation as an unconstitutional restraint on protesters’ rights.

With the protests dying as summer approached, however, the issued faded in both provincial and international headlines.

Polls have shown that Québec’s electorate is essentially even — they may not like the increasingly heavy-handed approach that Charest took with protesters, but nor were they especially keen on protester shutting down schools (not to mention entire neighborhoods) in Montréal.

So it’s not without some risk that Marois has embraced the student movement — by doing so, she is hoping to energize Québec’s young voters and otherwise capitalize on doubts about the Charest government’s effectiveness without alienating other voters who support Charest’s approach and who take a wary view of the student protests.

Charest, who has been premier since 2003, is looking to win a fourth consecutive mandate for his federalist, centrist Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ).  Polls show the PLQ and the PQ tied for first place, with the center-right Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) polling a strong enough third place to make it likely that Québec’s next government will be a minority government.

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