(Reuters) - The embattled premier of Quebec replaced a key aide on Thursday, the day after almost 700 people were arrested for taking part in the latest in a series of student demonstrations to rock the Canadian province.
Liberal Premier Jean Charest - under pressure to end the protests before the peak tourism season starts - moved to replace chief of staff Luc Bastien with veteran official Daniel Gagnier, who is already working quietly on the student protest issue.
A Charest spokesman denied media reports which variously said Bastien was paying the price for the continuing unrest and Gagnier would focus particularly on the students.
Quebec’s Liberal government, determined to end three months of student unrest over planned tuition hikes, last week pushed through a tough law making it harder to protest.
Many students vowed to ignore the law and continue nightly marches through Montreal, where police arrested 518 people on Wednesday night - the highest number yet in a single day. Another 176 were detained in Quebec City, the provincial capital.
“Most of these people were arrested for taking part in a protest that had been declared illegal ... I’d like to reassure people that our goal is not to break the record for arrests,” Montreal police spokesman Ian Lafreniere told reporters.
Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, head of the militant CLASSE student group, told RDI television that the government had promised a meeting soon between students and officials.
Officials in Montreal, Quebec’s largest city, fear television pictures of sometimes violent student clashes with police could deter visitors ahead of major events such as next month’s Formula One motor race.
Opinion polls show the Liberals are tied with the opposition Parti Quebecois, a separatist movement that wants independence for the predominantly French-speaking province. Charest must call an election by the end of 2013.
“This is what we’ve come to in Quebec under the Liberal Party - mass arrests, many of them arbitrary, to silence dissent,” Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois told the National Assembly on Thursday.
Public Security Minister Robert Dutil said the government had no influence on who was arrested.
“Which should prevail - the rule of the street or parliament? That’s the real question. The impression we get is that the opposition wants more and more crises in the street,” he said.
The Liberals set off the student campaign by announcing they would impose a 75 percent increase in what are some of the lowest tuition fees in North America.
Students said the hikes would leave them deep in debt after graduation at a time when good jobs are hard to find.
Tens of thousands of people marched through central Montreal on Tuesday to mark the 100th day of the campaign, which is taking on a general anti-government air. Major union leaders say they also oppose the law.
“It is now about inequality and not just tuition. Jean Charest has dug himself a big hole that will be hard to climb out of,” said Vincent Mosco, a sociology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
About 155,000 students - more than a third of Quebec college and university students - are striking against plans to increase annual tuition fees by C$1,625 ($1,580) over five years to around C$3,800.
Editing by Jim Loney