LAVAL, Que. - The Parti Quebecois says it's uniquely suited to restore social peace in Quebec and it plans to achieve that by scrapping controversial tuition hikes within its first 100 days in office.
Party leader Pauline Marois sought to illustrate that case on the first full day of the provincial election campaign by riding the Montreal subway system Thursday with her candidates — one of them a 20-year-old who helped organize Quebec's student strikes.
The constrast with Charest's campaign is intentional, and unmistakable. Liberal stops so far have been tightly controlled affairs because of what party officials described as security concerns.
The party is seeking to turn the student issue from a potential liability into an asset. After several quiet weeks during the summer, the polarizing debate has resurfaced with the election call.
Thousands marched through the streets of Montreal in support of the striking students on Wednesday night and the demonstration ended in tussles with police and more than a dozen arrests.
Student groups face a dilemma: return to class or vote to keep striking. They are due back at school in mid-August under the Liberal government's controversial protest law and must hold votes in several days on whether to respect that timetable.
Some activists are considering calling a truce during the campaign, for fear that any social unrest might solidify Premier Jean Charest's case for re-election on his theme of law and order.
The Liberals cast their refusal to back down on tuition hikes as a principled stand and indeed polls have suggested a majority of Quebecers support fee increases.
But Marois says that has come at the cost of social peace. She describes Charest's antagonism toward the students as a ploy to gain political benefit from the unrest.
"I'm sorry, but Mr. Charest is profoundly responsible for what is going on right now," she said.
"The Liberals decided to use this conflict to mask their record. It's a cynical and premeditated attempt to manipulate public opinion."
The PQ's plan adopts many of the measures demanded by the more moderate student groups. Marois promised to eliminate tuition hikes, cancel Bill 78 and call a summit on how to better fund universities if she won the Sept. 4 election.
She cautioned that if the summit recommended raising fees, her government would keep the increases indexed to inflation.
Quebec has the lowest tuition in the country and the government calls the hikes necessary.
However, its opponents note the 82 per cent fee hikes over seven years will take a heavy toll on students while representing only a drop in the bucket — about $330 million a year — for the provincial treasury. The annual budget is about $71 billion.
Marois made her announcement while flanked by several candidates from the region just north of Montreal, but the candidate standing closest to her was Leo Bureau-Blouin, the 20-year-old former student leader and now star candidate for the PQ.
Bureau-Blouin characterized the PQ's position as an effort to find a comprise, in contrast to the hard line taken by the Liberals.
"(Charest) is trying to profit from social contestation rather than solve it," he said. "Our political party has taken a number of engagements that aim to return social peace to Quebec."
He added that the PQ has "a real desire to end the crisis and bring people together."
Charest has been attempting to turn Marois' proximity to the students into a liability. He accuses her of tacitly supporting violence by wearing the students' iconic red square, and has been dismissive of Bureau-Blouin's candidacy.
Before the campaign the Liberals even released an attack ad featuring Marois taking part in a pots-and-pans protest.
But the PQ says it's unfair to equate legitimate protest with acts of violence and vandalism, which they condemn.
"I think it's better to be in the streets with real people, than at Sagard with the richest of this world," said Bureau-Blouin, referring to the palatial estate owned by the powerful Desmarais family, where Charest has been a guest.
To underscore that point, Marois and her young charge boarded the metro for downtown Montreal. Though she was surrounded by body guards and a sweaty horde of journalists, she still managed to chat and shake hands with a few surprised passengers.
In aligning herself with the street, Marois is entertaining certain risks.
Support for the student movement trailed off during the spring as picket lines were formed outside several colleges and court injunctions to reopen schools were openly defied.
There are fears similar clashes could mark the return to school later this month.
The conventional wisdom in Quebec is that a repeat of those images would anger middle-of-the-road voters and hurt the PQ's chances.
With an eye to avoiding such a scenario, Bureau-Blouin expressed his support for the idea of a truce during the campaign.
"I think we have to find a way to have a peaceful environment, and that's the reason I'm suggesting the idea of an electoral truce," he told reporters Thursday.
"We have to take every precaution to not benefit the Liberals."
While attacking opponents on the tuition issue, the Liberals have made the economy the centrepiece of their own campaign.
The party has issued its first campaign ad, in which Charest extols his economic stewardship. At a campaign stop in Quebec, he promised that the province would create 250,000 jobs and reach a historic unemployment target of 6 per cent under a re-elected Liberal government.
Quebec has never had an unemployment rate below 7 per cent since contemporary formulas for the rate were established in 1975.
The 2011 unemployment rate of 7.8 per cent was significantly lower than when Charest took office in 2003 and comparable to that in the rest of Canada and the United States — which Charest called a first in 30 years.
The job-creation figure would be slightly better than what Quebec achieved during Charest's first term between 2003 and 2007, when the province added 215,000 jobs, while his most recent term saw smaller growth.
The Liberal leader said his employment targets would be reached partly because of mining development under his Plan Nord.
However, the premier's critics suggest his economic record isn't so clean. They note that Quebec's debt has actually increased since he took office and, while he made good on a promise to cut personal income taxes, he increased the sales tax and fees for services.
While the premier talked job numbers, he offered another statistic sure to get some tongues wagging in Quebec.
Pressed more than once by reporters to give himself a score in his fight against corruption, the premier gave himself a mark of eight on 10.
He cited his list of actions, including the creation of an anti-corruption squad that has made numerous arrests already.
Charest also tightened contracting rules and political funding laws. He also called a public inquiry, after being pressured to do so for two years.
His opponents propose going farther in that fight. Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader Francois Legault promised Thursday that his first act as premier would be to introduce wide-ranging legislation that would create a public ethics watchdog.