Jean Charest cancelled a campaign event when a couple of dozen peaceful protesters showed up Wednesday evening in his home riding of Sherbrooke, Que. — a riding the Liberal leader and incumbent premier may well lose in next week's Quebec election.
Charest was supposed to tour a public market in Sherbrooke, a city 130 kilometres east of Montreal in Quebec's Eastern Townships region. But a group of about 25 protesters — mostly young and wearing the red square, emblem of the Quebec student movement's ongoing mobilization against the government — showed up.
They held up placards and a banner sporting a large red square, and chanted slogans at Charest, demanding a chance to speak to him about his government's plan for an 82 per cent university tuition hike.
"Parti Libéral, parti patronal!" some of them chanted ("Liberal Party, party of big business!").
The demonstrators stayed behind a line of equally numerous police at the entrance to the market, and Charest was able to slip by them, but he opted to cancel his tour. The Liberal leader maintained he was concerned for the safety of the market's merchants, though the protesters never tried to enter the market.
"Those who are protesting were obviously prepared to upset or to disturb those who are working in the market, and I'm not going to impose that on people who run an honest business and work hard to earn their lives," Charest said. "And this isn't about who is the most macho."
Charest said he would have preferred the incident not happen at all. But he took advantage of it to talk up one of his key campaign messages, saying that his chief rival, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois, would cave to students who have rattled the streets of Montreal and elsewhere in the province with their months-long strike.
"With Mme. Marois, we know that you get someone who actually doesn't think that we should stand up against this intimidation or violence, and actually supported the movement."
Opposition in home riding
Charest's government has never backed down on its plan to raise tuition substantially over the next seven years, not even after months of protests and occasional street clashes.
Marois's PQ has pledged that, if elected, it would cancel the tuition increase, call for a symposium on the future of Quebec higher education, and limit future tuition hikes to the rate of inflation.
The Coalition Avenir Québec says it would raise tuition, but by about 45 per cent less than the Liberals.
None of the three parties has a clear lead in recent polls, though Marois is considered the favourite.
Charest, whose has been in power for nine years, could well lose his own seat. The PQ candidate in Sherbrooke has strong support, including from Charest's own former justice minister Marc Bellemare. And the Liberal leader has come close to losing his provincial seat before. He won by a margin of 3.7 per cent in the 2007 election, and held on by less than eight points in 2003 and 2008.