Quebec premier Jean Charest speaks to the press after a meeting with student groups.
Credits: JEAN-FRANCOIS DESGAGNES/QMI AGENCY
Charest and Education Minister Michelle Courchesne broke off talks Thursday evening, accusing student leaders of refusing to make any concessions on the issue of a seven-year, $1,800 tuition increase.
Quebec offered to scale back the hike by $254 over seven years, but the four student associations rejected the proposal.
About 150,000 students boycotted classes on Feb. 14 to protest the tuition hike.
Two rounds of failed talks coupled with riots, mass arrests and a resulting tourist slump have led to speculation Charest might pull the trigger on an election as early as August.
He doesn't have to call a vote until the end of next year and won't commit to an early election, but Charest admitted to QMI Agency that the crisis might only be resolved at the polls.
"Eventually the real solution is that there will be an election in 18 months," said Charest, who has won three mandates over the past nine years.
He laid out the stakes of an eventual campaign, pointing out that the separatist Parti Quebecois has supported the student movement by wearing red squares on their lapels.
"There are two visions of Quebec that are in conflict," the premier said. "Mrs. (Pauline) Marois, for whom it's referendums and the street (protests) and the red square, and there's the vision I defend, which is democracy, jobs and the economy. Quebecers will eventually have to choose."
Charest might not be able to wait until November 2013 to go to the polls, some observers say.
One of his own cabinet ministers, Norman MacMillan, broke ranks last week and said if tuition talks fail, Charest would have no choice but to call an election.
As soon as negotiations were called off Thursday evening, student leaders announced a summer of protests. The education minister said the radical CLASSE association threatened, to her face, that Grand Prix activities would be disrupted next week.
QMI political analyst Jean Lapierre says economic pressure will eventually force Charest to put his government on the line.
"Will Montreal be allowed to be gutted all summer?" Lapierre asked. "Will he allow businesses and restaurateurs to eat their shirts all summer? That would be totally irresponsible and the government is responsible for ensuring social peace."