(Reuters) - Angry Quebec student leaders on Friday vowed to fight a tough new law to quell 14 weeks of strikes against tuition hikes, threatening to escalate their protests into a broad campaign of civil disobedience.
The Quebec government, seeking to end demonstrations it says could harm the economy, says anyone organizing a protest of more than 25 people must give police eight hours’ advance notice, something critics see as an assault on civil liberties.
The new law, due to be passed later on Friday, would also ban demonstrations near universities and colleges and impose large fines on those who disobey.
“When laws become unjust sometimes you have to disobey them and we are thinking seriously about this possibility,” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, head of the militant CLASSE student group, told a news conference held jointly with major trade union leaders.
Asked if he would be prepared to go to prison, he replied: “We’ll see.”
The students, who pay some of the lowest tuition fees in North America, say the price hikes would leave them facing thousands of dollars in debt. They have clashed with police, blocked Montreal’s main bridge and set off smoke bombs in the city’s metro in a series of protests.
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 ($1,595) over the course of five years, a 75 percent hike.
Headlines in two Quebec newspapers described the law as a “Declaration of war against the students” and “Law of the truncheon”. The head of Quebec’s bar association said the proposals would severely restrict basic constitutional rights.
“One has the right to ask who would still dare go out and demonstrate,” Louis Masson said in a statement. The government originally proposed that demonstrations of more than 10 people needed police permission, but it later raised the limit to 25.
The unrest comes at a bad time for Quebec Liberal Premier Jean Charest, who is already under pressure over allegations of corruption and who must call an election by the end of 2013.
Polls show the Liberals are trailing the separatist Parti Quebecois, which wants independence for the giant, predominantly French-speaking province of eight million people.
In another sign of potential trouble for Charest, the heads of three powerful unions said they also oppose the law.
“The Quebec government chose to use a club instead of dialogue and negotiations,” said Michel Arsenault, head of the Quebec Workers Federation. “Quebec must not become a police state and that’s what this law means.”
The Quebec legislature debated the proposed anti-strike legislation through the night. The Liberals have a narrow majority and are sure to win a vote on the bill.
Officials say they are worried about the potential impact on tourism in Montreal, Quebec’s largest city, and Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said some residents were afraid to travel downtown.
“The right to go to see one’s doctor, to go to a restaurant or go to work is also a fundamental right,” he told RDI television.
Public opinion is split between those who sympathize with the students and those who say their tactics cannot be justified. The Parti Quebecois, keen to benefit from the Liberal woes, strongly backs the students and says the government should be negotiating rather than trying to crack down.
The proposed law - which the Liberals say would expire in July 2013 - would ban protests on or within 50 meters (yards) of the grounds of a university or college.
Individuals breaking the law could be fined up to C$35,000 while student associations face penalties of up to C$125,000.
Additional reporting by Leila Lemghalef in Montreal; Editing by Janet Guttsman