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Stéphane Baillargeon June 2, 2012
What was once a student conflict is now a social crisis. Who exactly is this group, taking to the streets more than any other in Quebec’s history? And why are they doing it?
It’s the elected leader, or the street. The elected leader of elected leaders Jean Charest renewed his call for calm Thursday, and we’ll find out today whether he was heard by the mobilized masses, in the streets once again for a protest organized by students, who have been on strike for more than 100 days and a few dozen nights.
Commenting on the failure of negotiations, the premier once again told the public that elections would be held in eighteen months time and that “that will be the moment for people to express their disagreement democratically”. He added that, by threatening to disrupt the F1 Grand Prix set to take place in Montreal next weekend, the more radical amongst the young negotiators had gone too far.
“What we said was that the Grand Prix will be, like all the other big events (including, surely, the summer festivals), a forum for expression and to make our complaints heard,” explained Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the CLASSE, known as the most militant student federation.
So, the elected leader or the streets. These two options are attached to radically different conceptions of politics, power, and legitimacy. In the end, who governs? The National Assembly, or the sovereign people? And what do we do when, from time to time, rioters come in and make a mess of it all?
The monarch and the people
Instead of analyzing the situation in terms of a traditional left-right division, Marc Chevrier, political analyst at UQAM, proposes a tripartition of options. He distinguishes a so-called “monarchical liberal” conception (which is currently in power in Quebec as well as in Ottawa) and contrasts it with two others: one republican, one anarcho-libertarian.
The first philosophy, defended by the government and echoed strongly in mass media outlets, derives from classical liberalism. In this system, voters delegate power to an elected elite, who thus acquires the right to rule over the people.
“The government is the supreme decider, which is where the term monarchical liberalism comes from”, explains the political science professor. “Sure, the people can contest decisions and protest, but the real initiative is the government’s. If the people aren’t satisfied, they change the government in the next election.”
This model does not incorporate the role of the citizen-elector. “The people themselves are not an entity”, Chevrier continues. “It’s the rights of individuals that count. Society is highly policed and defined only by the contractual rights of persons. In this picture, public spaces are designated for the circulation of cars, goods, and people, and any challenge to this circulation is a challenge to the contract.”
The second, republican, tradition has its origins in the patriotes movement. In fact, the professor mentions seeing the patriotes’ flag amongst the protesters. “This conception [of power] dictates that the public has the right to be vigilant, to protest, to criticize. People can assist the elected government, or band together and oppose it. I don’t know whether this is what people are thinking as they tap on their pots and pans, but to me, the link is undeniable.”
The third, more radical option denies the representivity of those elected. The line between people and power is thus blurred by the criticism of traditional forms of representation. “The two positions of contest are found in the protest movement”, says Chevrier. “This division is present in the student associations as well”.
Broken social elevator
Cégep de Saint-Jerôme sociologist Stéphane Kelly proposes a different tripartition. Amongst his descriptions, two correspond [to Chevrier’s] : he speaks of a “liberal-imperialist” conception of power, and of a republican one. To these he adds a conservative option instead of [Chevrier’s] anarcho-libertarian one.
“In Quebec, there are three political cultures”, he says. “There’s the liberal tradition of imperial, anglophone Montreal, connected to the American empire. It’s attached to neo-liberalism and dumbfounded by francophone Quebec. Then, outside Montreal, there’s conservative Quebec, which has deep roots. Finally, there’s the third, republican Quebec, that of Greater Montreal francophones, which ascertains that people have the right to protest. When you look at which cégeps are still in the movement, strangely, they’re in the same conscriptions that supported Papineau in 1837. To me, we’re currently seeing a re-crystallization of these three cultures.
However, this type of tripolar invariant can must be considered while taking other, unprecedented phenomena into account. The author of the essay “The shadow on the wall”, a comment on the “trajectories” of Generation X, presents a typical modern family: a grandfather born in 1944, a son born in 1964 and his child, born in 1994. The first retired at a comfortable 56, but the second will be lucky to stop working at 66 and the youngest will probably quit one of many unstable jobs only when he is too exhausted to continue…
“The social elevator has been broken for thirty years”, Kelly notes. “In the thirty glorious years after the Second World War, there was a good chance that an individual could ascend one, two, three levels. Beginning in the 1980s, the pendulum swung back and younger generations have suffered. Their quality of life is stagnant or regressing. We’ve reached an impasse, we’ve said adieu to progress.”
For him, a number of social disadvantages explain why some are choosing to go on strike or bang pots and pans. “For strikers, solidarity is a survival reflex in a world of growing insecurity”, Kelly resumes.
The first face of social decline, the most obvious, is economic. “The disadvantages on the horizon are forewarned by a decline in social protections, employment security, home ownership, vacation time, and personal saving, including for retirement”.
The second element has to do with an individual’s field of study. Students in humanities (human and social sciences, philosophy, arts, literature, etc) are more likely to wear the red square while other, more utilitarian disciplines, with stronger links to the job market, (pure sciences, trades), have hardly participated in strikes at all.
“The strength of the movement is also explained by the challenges facing these disciplines. The student leaders are all study in these channels, and they have all been very successful in their educational careers. We’re training students to be critical thinkers, but this is not what employers want”.
A third aspect of decline happens within families. The sociologist observes that the young strikers’ parents are Gen-Xers and that many of them come from single-parent or blended families. “I’m not judging, I also come from a blended family”, he said.
He added that he was staying neutral in the conflict, but said, “I think that it’s going to be an important event in Quebec’s history. In terms of the level of mobilization, we’ve never seen this before, even during the battle over conscription in 1942. We’re seeing thousands in the streets, night after night, to directly oppose the ruling power. It’s never been seen before and one must proceed cautiously when trying to explain it…”
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at email@example.com. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.