Quebec will table a special law to allow boycotting students to eventually finish their school semester, while taking a summer break to "restore calm" in the three-month old tuition crisis.
Emergency legislation announced Wednesday night will suspend the current semester for many CEGEP college and university students, with provisions for classes to be postponed until August.
The Liberal government announcement was met with furious reaction from student groups, who warned of future unrest, as thousands of students gathered in Quebec City and Montreal for late-night protests.
Charest stressed the law calls for semester suspension.
"We're not cancelling, let's be clear, we're suspending," he said, flanked by several rectors and university-association officials. "It will allow us to finish the winter sessions in the fall."
The law will also address the right to education access, which the premier called an essential "right."
"Nobody can pretend to defend access to education and then block the doors of a CEGEP or university."
"I expect all those in a position of leadership to assume that responsibility, whether they are students, teachers or union activists," Charest said. "There is no reason for anyone to use violence and intimidation."
"The current situation has lasted too long... Quebecers have a right to live in security."
Legislation details will be revealed when the bill is tabled at the national assembly, which could happen as early as Thursday.
Students warn of future 'unrest'
Student leaders appeared furious as they reacted to the government's announcement.
FEUQ university association spokeswoman Martine Desjardins warned that government hopes of defusing the tuition crisis would likely fail.
"If Jean Charest wanted to reduce tensions with this proposal, I'm really afraid that it will increase them instead... Young people will remember."
At her side was Léo Bureau-Blouin, spokesman for CEGEP college association FECQ, who hinted at uprising among the student population.
"If there is violence, if there are serious injuries, Premier Jean Charest will have to carry the blame for the rest of his political career," Bureau-Blouin said.
The FECQ spokesman said earlier that students were concerned Quebec would resort to police powers to quell the tuition crisis.
Several CEGEP colleges and university programs have made the decision to cancel classes over the past few weeks after protesters blocked their entrances, despite court injunctions allowing some students to resume lectures.
On Wednesday, protesters clashed with undergraduate law students at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQÀM), forcing the suspension of lectures in the program.
Law students obtained a court injunction allowing them to resume their studies on campus, but hundreds of masked protesters stormed their classes in a tension-fuelled showdown.
Time to 'cool down' says Premier
The emergency law proposed by the government will have a deep impact on as many as 11 universities and 14 CEGEPs across Quebec, where classes could be postponed until August, when a short catch-up session would resume.
It will also allow students to take summer jobs, and for everyone to take a break from the escalating conflict.
"This is a time to cool down, take a breath, and take a look at the whole situation," Charest said.
Opposition Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois said she is opposed to any legislated crackdown.
Sporting the iconic red felt square that has come to symbolize the Quebec tuition movement, Marois said negotiation would always work better than coercion.
"I think the best way is to discuss," she said.