The New Sans-Culottes

A protester waves a flag during a march against student tuition fee hikes in downtown Montreal

“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright In the forests of the night,” begins the famous poem by William Blake. ‘The Tyger’ was published in 1789, the year the French Revolution broke out, and is believed to be a political allegory of the event. “One, two, three, four, this is a class war,” was the cry of students who participated in a protest that took place last Thursday night – a protest through which historical stirrings of the long dormant revolutionary spirit have been roused.

On the night of March 5, in a protest organized by ASSÉ (Association for Syndical Solidarity among Students), the mother organization for CLASSE, over 2000 Montreal students took to the streets of downtown Montreal in opposition of the recent government decision to increase tuition fees. The rally began as a peaceful protest, but it escalated, resulting in 50 arrests. Protesters launched projectiles at law enforcement officials. One such projectile was a tomato.

The symbolism of the tomato also holds historical significance. Poor and starving peasants in England and France often threw rotten tomatoes, eggs, or other rancid vegetation to demonstrate that they were so depraved they had been reduced to eating rotten food. The throwing of rotten tomatoes is symbolic of the government’s failure to provide for its people.

93054117-naked-montrealAt one protest in May of 2012, students marched through the streets of downtown Montreal in their underwear, calling for more ‘transparency’ from the Charest government. Pantless and strident, Quebec student protesters resemble modern-day sans culottes. While the face and the magnitude of the revolution have changed, student protestors demonstrate that the same flame of innovation and daring still burns in the hearts of France’s far-flung relatives: the Quebecois youth.

Protesters remove political campaign posters during a march against student tuition fee hikes in downtown MontrealHeading the decision to raise tuition fees is Pauline Marois, who last year allied her Parti Quebecois with students, even participating in a student march. Less than a day after the PQ victory on Sept 4 of last year, Marois announced that she would undo the hikes introduced by outgoing Premier Jean Charest. Contrarily, at the higher education summit this March 5 Marois decided upon a 3% tuition increase, insisting that, “The responsibility of the government is to decide, and I decided.” This attitude of “because I said so” came as a shock to many student protestors and Marois has now become a target of opposition.

The CLASSE is known to be the most radical and confrontational student group in Quebec. In another verse of Blake’s poem, Blake asks the “Tyger,” “when thy heart began to beat, What dread hand? & what dread feet?” There have been many criticisms directed at the Quebec students in recent media for supposedly dreadful acts. They have been accused of unnecessary violence and relentless grievance. The Montreal police branded the protest on March 5 illegal because organizers failed to provide them with an itinerary. Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum expressed that although, “everyone has the right to demonstrate,” he wishes marchers would behave safely and peacefully.

image-1Rushdia Mahreen, a student organizer, explained to Real News why striking and other protestant demonstrations are effective. She said, “Students took all the usual measures. There were demos, petitions. There were letters. We called the ministers and Prime Minister … but they just didn’t budge.” Rushdia went on to explain that the point of the protests and demonstrations is to, “cause a disruption,” in order to compel government officials to pay attention. Courtesies such as providing an itinerary of events and proverbially ‘keeping the noise down’ are counter-intuitive to activism.

Late into the night of March 5, the protest became violent near Montreal’s Convention Centre. An officer was injured in the eye by a projectile. Windows were smashed at a bank and a hotel. Police cars were allegedly vandalized. On the flip side of the student critics are those who condemn the law enforcement officials for their purported brutality. A student was injured in the leg by a stun grenade. The situation worsened when a riot squad lined up and began advancing on the protestors. At one point officers charged the crowd with batons. This misdirected violence is a direct result of the buffer zone situated between citizens and their government.

bastilleIn Paris, France, on the morning of July 14, 1789, demonstrators stormed the Bastille, a prison fortress that represented royal authority. The ‘Storming of the Bastille’ was the symbolic event that launched the Revolution. Today, unfortunately, the police force has replaced the bulwark of the Bastille walls, and they provide the shock absorption between the citizens and the government bodies. However, the violent way in which the Parisian rebels conducted their revolt is what cast them as illegitimate in the eyes of the masses. It is believed that their sublime violence was the inspiration for Blake’s comparison of the revolution with the rapaciousness of the tiger. Although the violence of the student protests have yet to reach even approximately the level of carnage that characterized the French Revolution, it is important for protestors to consider the ramifications of their actions in terms of gaining support.

imagesThe protests really gained momentum last year, when Quebec students undertook a series of protests that were aimed against the proposal by the Quebec Cabinet to raise university tuition fees by 75% between 2012 and 2017. Members of CLASSE were stalwartly opposed to the tuition hike, as it is their aim to completely eliminate tuition fees by 2016. To pay for the cost of this elimination, CLASSE proposed the restoration of the capital tax on financial institutions by activating a taw of 0.14% this year, rising to 0.7% by 2016. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, student union leader and spokesperson for CLASSE, explained that the tax would raise $400 million, “the exact amount of free school.”

Rejecting this proposal, the government counter-offered to raise the income cut-off to extend the bursary program, as well as extend the tuition transition period from 2012 to 2019. The students refused this offer and urged the government to find alternative sources of funding. The government rejected their alternative, and on February 12, 2012, after all other strategies to make progress with the provincial government failed, students instigated a strike.

During the demonstration on March 22, that had over 300,000 participants, Nadeau-Dubois expressed to Real News that the tuition hike is, “totally unacceptable,” and that high tuitions lead to student debts that are an, “obstacle to accessibility.” He also proclaimed that the tuition hike protests are part of a larger social movement: a resistance to the recent wave of taxation and privatization for all public services. One such tax was the new “health tax” of $200 per person per annum. For this reason, many left-wing social groups and unions that opposed the privatization have joined with and demonstrated alongside the students. These groups include the Parti Québécois, Québec solidaire, Option nationale, Confédération des syndicats nationaux, Canadian Union of Public Employees, and many other fringe groups. This demonstrates that the tuition hikes are only one corollary in the wave of privatization.

One of the social groups in support of the students is the Fédération interprofessionelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), an association of Quebec health workers. Robert Bomba, FIQ executive committee member explained that the new face of neoliberalization displays right-leaning decentralization. He said that the Quebec people will have, “less involvement with the government.” Decentralization of government combined with less accessibility to education will broaden the distance between citizens and the government bodies they elect into power.

Demonstrators march against student tuition fee hikes in downtown MontrealThe most logical thing to do when your government will not hear you is to raise your voice. This is exactly what the protestors had to do in the event of the recent government decision to raise tuition fees. Although many may argue that the student protestors are pushing against tuition fee hikes that are necessary for compensating for inflation, many should take into account the history of the CLASSE’s struggle to keep tuition costs at one of the lowest rates in the country. We need to consider that perhaps the student protests are exactly why Quebec tuitions are as low as they are. It is when people lower their voices and become complacent that governments become omnipotent and opaque.

In light of the violent events that occurred on the night of the March 5 protest, on Wednesday the ASSÉ organization’s Facebook page posted a link to a video of the footage of last year’s protest. Above this link is written: “La ‘crise’ est derrière nous, disent Marois et Duchesne. Hier, nous étions des milliers à prouver qu’ils ont tort. (The “crisis” is behind us, said Marois and Duchesne. Yesterday, thousands of us gathered to prove that they are wrong.)” ASSÉ has also posted, “Soyons encore plus nombreux et nombreuses à la prochaine. (Let us be even bigger and better in the next one.)” Despite Marois’ resolve, clearly the fight is not over.

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