Quebec students keep up pressure, Charest ponders electoral options

| June 15, 2012
Photo: ScottMontreal / flickr

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This is the second of a two-part update on the Quebec student strike. Yesterday, Part I looked at stepped up police repression in Quebec. 

The FECQ met in convention on the weekend of the Grand Prix. It called on the government to accept a mediated end to the tuition fee conflict, but also decided on a plan of action throughout the summer that will see it remain on a mobilization footing along with a larger counterpart, the CLASSE coalition.

FECQ is joining CLASSE's call for another mass march in Montreal, on June 22. The largest student marches have been taking place for months now on the 22nd of each month, including the May 22 march that drew an estimated 400,000 people, the largest single protest action in Canadian history.

FECQ will hold rallies across Quebec in smaller centers leading up to June 22 and will host a rally in Quebec City on the same day. This decision continues the solid unity that student associations have been able to maintain in the face of government and media efforts to divide them, particularly in targeting CLASSE as an instigator of violent and criminal acts.

FECQ also says it will turn more attention and resources towards unseating the Liberal Party in the next provincial election.

Election call up government's sleeve

With the likely failure of Law 78 and police repression to end the student mobilizations-in fact, they are provoking a broader mobilization against the government's capitalist agenda-the last hope to salvage the government program may be a timely election call. There, the power of money and media as well as the weakening and compartmentalization of citizen action in which bourgeois elections excel would work to the benefit of the Liberals and their elite backers.

Unfortunately for the government, it faces three major obstacles to that course. One is the student mobilization itself, which refuses to bow to repression or calls to reason. Government candidates will be dogged by protests in any election campaign.

Two is the formal commission of inquiry that the Charest government has been obliged to convene into corruption in Quebec's construction industry and its cozy relationship to successive Quebec governments. The commission's public hearings began in early June and will continue throughout the rest of the year. They will be a continual reminder of the moral rot and economic privilege of the government and ruling elite of the province.

The third obstacle is the government's apparently weakening electoral position. The spontaneous rise in the past few months of the ‘pots and pans,' community mobilizations against Bill 78 is one sign of this. Another sign is the electoral setback the government suffered in mid term elections in two electoral districts in the Montreal region on June 11.

Support for the governing party dropped sharply in the districts of LaFontaine and Argenteuil-
from 70 percent to 53 percent in the former and 50 percent to 34 percent in the latter. While it retained its seat in LaFontaine, it lost Argenteuil to the Parti québécois (PQ), the pro-sovereignty official opposition party. The Liberals had held Argenteuil for the past 47 years.

Discussion over strategy

A discussion over the future course of the social struggle in Quebec took place at a session of a day-long political conference hosted by the Quebec media ngo Alternatives on June 9. It was attended by several hundred activists. There, co-leader of CLASSE, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, made a forceful argument in favor of the group's proposal for a "social strike" against the government by the entire working class movement, including its trade union component. (The session, which took place in French, can be viewed here.)

Nadeau-Dubois explained that the student movement has reached the limit of the pressure it can exert on the government. Something like 75 percent of the students in the province have been on strike at one moment or another. There have been 115 consecutive days of mobilization. Some businesses, notably tourism, are suffering economic losses from the strike. The cost to the government of suppressing the student movement has probably now exceeded the cost of the tuition freeze it refuses to concede.

Still, he said, the government is holding firm. "What, then, is missing from our mobilizations?" he asked.

"The (student) strike and the movement of the 'pots and pans' has been very positive, but it's becoming clearer that these are not sufficient. Already, the pots and pans protests that were in their thousands last week are down to the hundreds this week in the streets of Montreal."

"So, we must think of new steps."

Some hold out the possibility that an election will eventually resolve the crisis. Yes, Nadeau-Dubois agreed, the Liberals must eventually be defeated at the polls. But, "The timidity of the (Parti québécois) over the tuition hike prevents us from placing all of our hopes on the ballot box, certainly in the short term."

(The PQ is broadly supported by leadership circles in the trade union movement. During the 18 years of the last 35 that it governed the province, it applied variants of the same pro-capitalist policies as the Liberals. In the current struggle, it has refused to commit to a freeze in post-secondary tuition fees, the issue that lies at the origin of the conflict between the student movement and the government.)

"The community movement is important to the present struggle, but it's not through a community movement that a significant increase in pressure can be mounted against the government."

"So all attention is turning to the union movement," he said. Efforts must be redoubled to prepare a social strike against the government. A common front with the unions is needed, he said, which until now have been reacting "timidly" to the student strike.

A common front should not be centered on the issues in the student strike alone. It should be focused on a broad range of social issues-education, health care, privatization of government enterprises. This would appeal to the majority of the population and it would also counter the false impression that the student and the trade union organizations are only interested in their narrow, respective interests.

Nadeau-Dubois' talk was later followed by Louis Roy, president of one of the largest union centrals in Quebec, the CSN. His lengthy presentation consisted largely of arguments that members of the union centrals are not ready to enter onto the path of a social strike. He did not explain if and how that could change.

Roy made important references to the need for a united fight against not just the policies of the Quebec government but also the federal government.

Electoral alliances?

With an eventual election call by the Liberals in the wings, there are mounting pressures on Quebec solidaire, the only party to have stood squarely with the student movement, to join an electoral alliance with the Parti québécois where it would play a subordinate role. QS made only modest gains in the June 11 by-elections, albeit in districts where its political base is small.

Leaders of the SPQ Libre group, a trade union-based group in the PQ that was expelled from the party in 2010, say QS should present at most two candidates and leave the rest of the field open to candidates of the PQ.

Party leader Amir Khadir answered all this in a June 5 open letter, affirming that the party is unconvinced it should abandon its independent role. Responding to the argument that voter abstention is rising and will facilitate the Liberals remaining in power, he wrote, "To fight against abstentionism, it's necessary to clearly align political perpectives with the social mobilization. This is what Quebec solidaire has sought to do since its foundation.

"The PQ, a governing party won over to neo-liberalism, views the social movements as problems to manage or points of political debate. Quebec solidaire, on the contrary, wants to see the social movements win because together with them, the interests of our people advance and Quebec therefore wins."

Khadir and party co-leader Françoise David elaborated these points in a lengthy commentary published in Le Devoir on June 14.

To this important debate in Quebec can be added the need for discussion in the trade union and social movements right across Canada on how to broaden the struggle in Quebec.

Presently, the federal government is pushing a mega-budget bill through the federal Parliament containing unprecedented cuts to social services, environmental protection and democratic rights. It projects big boosts to military spending and more subsidies to private industry. In other words, the governments of Canada and Quebec are pursuing near-to identical policies.

New Democratic Party members of Parliament have been silent on the stakes in the struggle in Quebec and opposition to the federal budget has been very modest across the working class movement. A broad and united mobilization is needed, inspired by the example of the Quebec students, for an alternative government and societal direction.

 

Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver. 

 

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