The Québec provincial election is a few days away and despite an ongoing conversation about holding a truce, student activists continued their use of disruptive tactics (most recently at the Université de Montréal). Student mobilization has become a central feature of the 2012 provincial election. But, who stands to benefit most from student protest?
Leaders in the student movement have sought to use the election to address grievances regarding tuition increases (although, as I have written in a previous blog and as others have noted, it is unclear whether tuition is truly driving mobilization or whether it triggered underlying discontent). The more militant organization, CLASSE, as well as other movement figures has been associated with the nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ). Indeed, Pauline Marois, leader of the PQ brought in activist leader Léo Bureau-Blouin as a PQ candidate in a district north of Montreal. Student activists presumably see a PQ electoral victory as a potential victory of their own as Marois proclaimed that the PQ will cancel any tuition increases within its first 100 days in office. It is not surprising then that student protesters have sought to mobilize particularly in districts where they believe the youth vote will make the difference in defeating the Liberal Party and Premier Jean Charest.
Marois and the PQ have on many instances cozied up to student mobilization banking on the youth vote because this also serves the PQ’s interest in forming the next government. Co-opting Bureau-Blouin, who was once the leader of a college student federation, may have been a good strategy, as he is seen as more reasonable and more appealing to older voters (apparently, there is a sort of Blouin-Bieber mania associated with the candidate who is only twenty years old). Marois appealed to students at one of the televised debates when she said to Charest, “You confronted our youth…You never do that when you’re Premier of Québec.” Marois, who in the past has come across as elitist, has been able to use student mobilization to reframe herself and the party as popular while accusing Charest of being detached from voters. But it isn’t all rosy. According to MacPherson of the Montreal Gazette (Aug 9), Bureau-Blouin “appears to have lost his mojo with the student movement.” Many student movement activists view Bureau-Blouin as a sellout for taking Marois up on her offer and suggesting that the movement call a truce. But more importantly, the PQ is fully aware that a large proportion of Quebeckers have negative views about students’ grievances and their use of disruption. Marois may have made matters worse when she, presumably unintentionally, stated that taxes would probably be raised in order to cover the shortfall caused by tuition freezes. Student disruption only seems to increasingly turn the public off.
Indeed, Charest and the Liberals are counting on precisely that. Since Charest has been running on a “law and order” platform which many Quebeckers - what Charest has been calling the “silent majority” – find appealing, he is counting on further disruption especially closer to election day. Charest strategically refers to student mobilization as “mob violence” and “social chaos” and to Marois as backing “intimidation” by wearing the symbol of student protesters (Globe and Mail, Aug 20). Ironically, the Liberals also stand to win if students continue to disrupt classes and block roads. In what comes across as collusion between the PQ and CLASSE, there has been a call by both to hold off on any more disruption fearing that disruption would only help bring Charest and the Liberals to victory. As Séguin and LeBlanc write (Globe and Mail, Aug 2), “The Liberals are hoping the students will play into their hands…[PQ] Leader Pauline Marois is urging Québec student leaders to call a truce on further strikes and confrontations for the durations of the often cites social disruption campaign…” Bureau-Blouin himself stated that “We need to achieve a peaceful social climate. That is why I support the idea of a truce. We have to take all precautions not to play into the Liberals’ hands.” Student activists are seeking to play into the popular law and order framing used by the Liberals by spreading the message that only a PQ win will put an end to social unrest. In so doing, as MacPhearson writes, “the student leaders might help the PQ, deliberately or not…”
The symbiotic relationship between student activists and party elites showcases how, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, grassroots mobilization and elite interests mutually benefit one another. What might be, on the surface, seen as an attempt by students to take advantage of a political opportunity, is also case of political parties using student discontent and organizational resources to achieve electoral victory.