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Did Quebec’s Election End the Student Movement?

The election divided students and left the movement with an uncertain future. But the real victory may be in what students learned about their own empowerment.

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On September 4, Quebec’s student movement, admired for its 300,000-person protests, provided a less sensational model for youth worldwide — of a movement struggling with the contradictory effects of a hotly contested election.

After six months of protests against Premier Jean Charest’s 75-percent tuition hike and anti-assembly Law 12, Quebec’s citizens marched to the polls to oust Charest’s Liberal party and install Pauline Marois and her separatist Parti Quebecois. Marois surprised many who were skeptical of her support for students with her first ministerial decrees, promising to cancel the tuition hike, repeal Law 12 and hold a summit to renegotiate education financing. As a bonus for students, Charest lost his local race, ending his political career altogether.

Nonetheless, CLASSE, Quebec’s most influential student union, remains vigilant in its monitoring of the new government until reforms are implemented, and many point out that Marois’ plan for education financing is based on indexing tuition with inflation — still a significant bump from current prices. Furthermore, with a measly 54 of 125 seats, Marois’ minority government will have to be frugal with its political capital, and it has expensive items on its wish list (namely, Quebec’s independence) that might edge out education as the focus of political attention.

Most students declare Marois’ win a modest victory for their cause, like former CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois who said, “In politics, the victory is never as bright as you would like.” But whatever the wins this election may eventually deliver for students, they are dimmed in large part because the election broke the back of the strike, paralyzing the movement in the process.

Quebec’s movement was built on an alignment against a specific tuition fee, but many mobilizers connected the chants against student debt to deeper critiques of the neoliberal state. In August, the election bitterly divided students along these political lines in General Assemblies, debating whether to trust politicians, keep striking until demands were met, or build independent power. The discord so diminished the movement’s leverage, decimating the number of students on strike from 150,000 to 35,000, that by September 4, students could do little but cross their fingers and hope that Marois would fully repeal the tuition hike, despite having only promised to temporarily freeze it.

But when considering the election’s long-term impact on the movement, the picture is even more nuanced. Because while the election’s schismatic effects betrayed how shaky student power can be in comparison to the institutionalized power of the state, it also revealed what students had built that may be more durable in the long run — their ability to govern themselves.

Protest Power Takes a Backseat to Electoral Power

Even before the election’s announcement on August 1, the movement was having trouble maintaining the (astonishing) level of intensity it had amassed in the early part of the summer, when it held over 100 consecutive nights of “casserole” marches. In context of the newly diminishing demonstrations, the national demonstration in August (held each month on the 22nd was a paradoxical display of protest power. Although the march boasted 100,000 marchers according to CLASSE’s estimates, many protesters seemed to have recognized by that point that the battleground had moved from the street to the voting booth.

The red square, a popular symbol of Quebec’s student protests, was still pinned to shirts in near ubiquity, but the demonstrators varied widely on other apparel choices. Many donned “Votez” pins, and held signs saying “Je Vote Pour___” with political parties like Parti Quebecois and Québec Solidaire, or phrases like “I vote with my heart,” scribbled in the blank. Others wore all black and tore off any posters of politicians that they march passed. If the sign were of Charest, it would likely be splattered with red paint and stomped on as well.