MONTREAL (Reuters) - Quebec students and trade unions on Friday formally challenged a new anti-protest law they say undermines democracy in the Canadian province, which is reeling from three months of demonstrations against planned tuition hikes.
Many people are disobeying the law with noisy nightly marches through the city of Montreal to show their unhappiness with the Liberal government.
The students, unions and around 70 community groups asked the Quebec superior court to suspend parts of the law, which requires advance notice of protests and sets out stiff fines for those who disobey.
“We are worried that the Quebec government is attacking fundamental rights ... such as the right to gather, the right to free speech as well as the right to protest peacefully,” said Leo Bureau-Blouin, head of the Quebec College Student Federation.
The court will hear the request to suspend parts of the law next Wednesday. The coalition also wants the court to throw out most of the law on the grounds that it violates the constitution.
The protests against the tuition hikes have turned into a general campaign against the government, which must call an election by December 2013. Polls indicate Premier Jean Charest could lose to separatists who want independence for the French-speaking province.
Police arrested almost 700 people in Montreal and the provincial capital, Quebec City, on Wednesday night.
Charest replaced his chief of staff on Thursday with a former aide who has been working on the student issue. The education minister resigned last week.
Government ministers say the law is needed to restore order and prevent damage to the economy in Montreal, Quebec’s biggest city, before the tourism season hits a peak. Montreal is due to host a Formula One motor race next month.
“What I see in the streets is not the Quebec I know,” provincial Energy Minister Clement Gignac told RDI television.
The crisis started when the Liberals said they would raise what are some of the lowest tuition fees in North America by 75 percent over seven years to boost investment in higher education.
Students, protesting against what they see as European-style austerity, said the hikes would leave them deep in debt.
About 155,000 students - more than a third of Quebec college and university students - are striking against the plans, which would increase annual tuition fees to around C$3,800 ($3,690).
Among the groups backing the demonstrators is the Quebec university professors’ federation, which says the law is anti-constitutional and violates basic freedoms.
“It is intolerable that someone in our country could have come up with this law, that it was approved by a government which is increasingly showing itself to be incapable of seeing what’s really going on,” federation head Max Roy told reporters outside the Montreal courthouse where the suits were filed.
Bureau-Blouin said almost 500 lawyers had volunteered to work on the lawsuits for free.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Jim Loney