(Reuters) - The Quebec government opened talks with student leaders on Monday in a bid to end 16 weeks of a sometimes violent strike by students in the Canadian province that is threatening to disrupt next month’s Formula One motor race in Montreal.
More than 150,000 students, unhappy with proposed tuition hikes, are on strike, with many protesting noisily every night through the streets of Montreal in defiance of a new law that clamps down on demonstrations.
“I think we are all obliged to resolve this, not just the government ... it’s around a table that we’ll find a solution,” Education Minister Michelle Courchesne told reporters ahead of the meeting in Quebec City.
The protests, which started when the government announced it would raise tuition fees by 75 percent over the next seven years, have turned into a more general public campaign against unpopular premier Jean Charest.
Students have clashed with police on several occasions since the protests started and in one instance set off smoke bombs in the Montreal subway, shutting down the system. In just one night last week police arrested almost 700 people in Montreal and Quebec City.
Time is running out to solve the dispute before Montreal hosts a Formula One race on Sunday June 10. Tourism officials - who also fret about the city’s major jazz festival that starts in late June - are increasingly unhappy about the impact abroad of television clips showing violence in Quebec.
Montreal’s French-language La Presse newspaper said on Monday that the government would modify its position on tuition hikes, but gave few details.
Any deal the student leaders reach with the government must be voted on by members of the various student groups represented at Monday’s talks. The groups overwhelmingly rejected an initial agreement the two sides struck earlier this month. The government is likely to support any deal its negotiators achieve.
“We have to talk about tuition fees. And if Madame Courchesne refuses to deal with the tuition fees and the law (on protests), there are serious doubts about what we’ll achieve,” said Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, head of the militant CLASSE student group.
Student leaders and trade unions last week launched two legal challenges against the law, saying it broke the constitution. The first will be heard this Wednesday.
Leo Bureau-Blouin, head of the more moderate Quebec College Student Federation, said he was prepared to be open with the government and would negotiate in good faith.
Charest must call an election by December 2013. Polls indicate he could lose to separatists who want independence for the French-speaking province.
The Liberals, citing the need to invest more in higher education, want to raise what are some of the lowest tuition fees in North America by 75 percent over seven years.
More than a third of Quebec college and university students are striking against the move, which would increase annual tuition fees to around C$3,800 ($3,725). Students say the hikes will leave them thousands of dollars in debt at a time when the world economy is fragile.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Philip Barbara