This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on September 3, 2012
Charest Fighting Corruption Allegations
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, arguably the leading figure in Quebec's student protest movement, is known for his sartorial streak and a pair of ice-blue eyes that have weakened the knees of many of his admirers. Yet it was the 20-year-old's righteous way with words that was on display as the would-be revolutionary dreamboat stepped back from the protracted (and at times violent) student uprising that has consumed Quebec for much of the year. "I leave with my head high, with the conviction of having fulfilled my duty and having participated in an historic popular movement," Nadeau-Dubois wrote in his resignation letter in early August. His only regret, he said, was "leaving my functions while Quebec is led by Jean CHAREST, a premier who is disdainful and violent toward Quebec and its youth."
Charest, who is seeking a fourth term, is probably just as sad to see Nadeau-Dubois go--if only because it deprives the premier of the perfect villain. Saddled with abysmal approval ratings, stemming largely from allegations of corruption within his government, Charest has tried mightily to make the Sept. 4 election about law and order--one of the few areas where he outflanks rivals Pauline Marois and François Legault. And few people personified the tear-gas-tinged, traffic-snarling displays that were the nightly student protests this spring and early summer than Nadeau-Dubois.
Apparently aware of his value to Charest's re-election campaign, Nadeau-Dubois told Radio-Canada he resigned in part because "it takes a target away from Jean Charest." The group he once led isn't quite so savvy. Through the stubborn militancy of the second-largest association in the province, the student union CLASSE has kept the spectre of further conflict alive, and may well help re-elect the man it has fought against for nine months. Unlike the province's other main student groups, CLASSE has refused to participate in the election. Indeed, true to its anarchist tendencies, it does not even endorse the electoral system; rather, the group continues to rely on what spokesperson Jeanne Reynolds calls the "show of force and economic disruption" of old-fashioned street protests. "The victories we've had have happened because of the protests and the strike, so we think we should continue," Reynolds says. "We have the momentum."
As the election campaign enters its middle stages, Charest has made pains to define himself as the only candidate able to confront and suppress what he has called "those who have expressed themselves through intimidation and violence." It is a soundbite-worthy way of describing the thousands who, over the past several months, marched through Montreal's streets in a cat-and-mouse game with police. Yet these displays have largely ended as more and more students vote to go back to school, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the premier needs a certain amount of chaos in the streets--if only to keep the public's attention away from the raft of corruption allegations swirling around his government.
And it seems the 101,000 CEGEP and university members of CLASSE are more than happy to oblige. Far from taking its ire to the ballot box, CLASSE is instead promoting another large-scale protest a mere two weeks before the election. "The LIBERAL PARTY is campaigning on law and order, so if we go back to class and stop the disruption, the Liberals can say that their strategy worked. It's only going to help their cause," says Reynolds.
To be sure, the vast majority of Quebec students will soon be back in the classroom. Both the FEUQ and the FECQ, which represent university and CEGEP students respectively, have since switched into election mode, launching a get-out-the-vote campaign and visiting ridings where the Liberals are vulnerable. The president of one of the moderate unions recently resigned his position, only to announce his candidacy with the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS shortly thereafter. "We tried everything legally possible, from protesting to negotiating with the government, and we decided that when it comes to an election, the best way to be heard is to go and vote," says FEUQ president Martine Desjardins.
If polls are to be believed, Desjardins's stance is certainly pragmatic. Though barely one in five voters believe the governing Liberals are doing a good job, and despite targeting the Charest government almost exclusively, the student movement was never able to gain significant popular support amongst Quebecers. Even when the government introduced Bill 78, which raised the ire of constitutional experts across the country by severely limiting the ability of people to stage protests in the streets and in front of schools, a majority of the population still sided with the government's position on tuition fees, according to a Léger Marketing poll last May.
Then there's the media equation. Charest's unpopularity is due largely to regular media bombardments detailing corruption allegations and illicit fundraising schemes. Those reports largely ceased when attention turned to the nightly marches and frequent clashes with riot police, which is why the best thing Charest can hope for is another round of protests. "It was like there was no scandal, no corruption, during the student crisis," says Jean-François Dumas, president of Influence Media, a media-monitoring group. "Media outlets knew that any stories about corruption would get swallowed up by the coverage of the protests."
In short, having students marching in the streets and getting arrested provided a fantastic distraction for the Charest government. The spectacle also allowed Charest to attack Marois and the Parti Québécois--which supported the students until recently, when it became politically unfeasible to do so. Even diehard backers of the student movement recognize how damaging further protests could be to the cause of defeating the Liberals. In an early July address to CLASSE representatives, the leader of Quebec's biggest union federation said staying in the streets would only serve Charest's re-election campaign.
"I told them that it was to their advantage to do political action, to rally for the party of their choice, but that continuing their protests would only help Charest's cause," says Michel Arsenault, president of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Quebec (FTQ). Charest's plan of attack, Arsenault says, is to "frame the decision as a choice between ... law and order and the student protests." In June, the PQ released a leaked Liberal PowerPoint page outlining part of the government's election strategy. The document detailed how the Liberals should equate Charest with "job creation" and the PQ leader with "referendum and the street." Yet CLASSE's reaction to Arsenault, while polite, was ignored: though much smaller, the Montreal street protests continue in earnest.
Charest, meanwhile, has proven Arsenault right. At many of his campaign stops, the premier attempts to keep the protests alive in voters' minds. One of the first Liberal attack ads consisted entirely of Marois clumsily banging pots and pans together, as though she had never done such a thing--an apparent dig at both her support for the student movement and her bourgeoisie image. During a campaign stop in Victoriaville, the scene of a violent confrontation between students and police in early May, the premier peppered his stump speech with references to those. Referring to Victoriaville as "the scene of the crime," Charest reminded the audience of the "frankly sad events that happened just outside these doors that we cannot forget."
Yet unfortunately for Charest, Quebecers in general seem to have moved on from the student issue. Contrary to the Victoriaville riot, where roughly 1,000 students clashed with police when Charest appeared there in May, less than 10 protesters showed up for his most recent event. "The principal theme of the election has been corruption," says Dumas of Influence Media. "The more the campaign progresses, the less we care about the student movement. There's a burn-out factor, a lethargy that has set in."
Still, Charest and the Liberals can count on continued noise and fury from the CLASSE contingent. The group will remain resolutely street-bound during the campaign. "In the streets, until victory!" reads an advertisement for one of their events. Charest himself would probably concur.
Maclean's September 3, 2012