Clash of the centuries: what happened when Quebec's 20th-century government encountered its 21st-century social movement.

Author:Forest, Pierre-Gerlier

It was four o'clock on May 31, 2012, the 109th day of the Quebec student conflict. Michelle Courchesne, then Quebec's recently appointed Minister of Education, left the building where she had met with representatives of the student associations for the last four days. Courchesne faced a media scrum where she announced that the talks had just broken down and declined to answer further questions from the press. "We won't discuss this on a sidewalk," said the minister, holding on to her documents. "Let's meet in a proper press conference in a couple of hours." When the student leaders emerged 30 minutes later, they were more than ready to talk to the media. By the time Premier Jean Charest began the government press conference just before 6:30 p.m., the students' talking points were already widely disseminated, thanks not only to social media but also to news broadcasts and online editions of traditional media.

This incident put an end to a critical phase of the student conflict. But it also captured perfectly, in condensed form, what had been going on in Quebec since March 2011, when the provincial government announced its decision to raise university tuition fees by $325 a year for five years. In a nutshell, a government of the 20th century, visibly convinced that authority flows unimpeded from institutions and titles and political rituals like formal press conferences, faced a social movement of the 21st century, characterized by its nimbleness, its indifference to tradition and hierarchy and its capacity to define and control the semantic playing field.

Much has been written about the creativity of the student movement and the charisma of the student leaders, in sharp contrast to the lacklustre performance of the politicians. In October, Leo Bureau-Blouin, the student leader recently elected as the new Parti Quebecois member of the National Assembly for Laval-des-Rapides, was featured on the cover of a fashion magazine--no risk of that happening to Jean Charest or Francois Legault. Bureau-Blouin's Twitter feed has now gathered more followers than that of any other Quebec politician. However, it would be a mistake to see this conflict as a mere question of personalities or communication skills. As revealed by the evolution of the crisis, which broadened from a classic student protest to a full-scale social movement in barely three months, the issues at stake included questions about social justice and human rights, the rule of law and, in the end, the nature of democracy itself.

The Charest government

It was not the age of its members or their general lack of appetite for Twitter or Facebook that anchored the Charest administration in the 20th century. It was, rather, the administration's strongly held belief that an electoral mandate is a sufficient condition to govern as one sees fit.

Indeed, if asking the students to pay a "fair share" of their education was the primary message of Premier Charest and his ministers throughout the conflict, the recurring theme in their public statements was the notion that the government was justified in unilaterally imposing its plan and vision because of its electoral majority. Rarely a day passed without someone stating that a duly elected government was there to make tough decisions or that the opponents of the tuition increase should wait until they could defeat the government in the polls, "the only right way in a democracy."

But despite these motherhood-like statements, public opinion never really warmed to the rhetoric. Everybody knew that a "tough" decision is usually tough on a particular...

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