It’s not as if Charest has never seen a mob in the street before. The one at the parade for the 1990 St. Jean Baptist Day — Quebec’s traditional holiday, which also happens to be Charest’s birthday — probably still sends chills up Charest’s spine.
That mass gathering came in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord constitutional reform package Mulroney hoped would appease Quebec nationalists and heal the rift left over from the 1981 constitutional negotiations (see my April 20 column). When certain premiers squelched the Meech Lake deal, Quebecers were angry and support for sovereignty soared to unseen high levels.
The student protests, financed by the deep pockets of Quebec’s big unions, have been so persistent and so polarizing — not to mention loud, costly and annoying for average citizens — may have taken Charest by surprise.
Oddly enough, Charest’s old rival over the federalist-separatist divide, Lucien Bouchard, has come out in support of, if not Charest personally, the necessity to raise tuition fees to help in a modest way to improve Quebec’s universities, which, for the most part, have little claim to world-class stature.
As of this writing, negotiations between student leaders and government officials appear to be making headway toward resolving the dispute. According to one report, the government was offering a package that would include a reduction in the amount of the annual increase by some $35, to $219. The total hike would be about $1,500 over seven years. Should Charest reach a deal and quell the student unrest — only about a third of Quebec students have been boycotting classes as part of the protest — he would be in a better position to call an election in the fall.
There is some speculation that Charest may be preparing the ground for a successor, given his chronic unpopularity (he was nearly prime minister of Canada, remember?). Which means he would be among the rare Quebec premiers to leave office in relatively good health, both politically and physically.