MONTREAL - Student protests made a reappearance in the Quebec election Wednesday after having dropped off the radar in the campaign's first weeks.
Thousands of students marched in Montreal — just as they have on the 22nd of every month, for the last six months.
The event was peaceful, at times even festive, although in some cases people tore down a number of political campaign posters for different parties.
The protests have faded as an election issue, mere weeks after they were attracting international news coverage and dominating the political conversation.
The student unrest didn't even come up once in the only election debate to have featured all four leaders of the biggest parties.
Part of that absence has to do with a strategic decision made by many students: most have returned to class, with some citing a desire to avoid making themselves a campaign issue.
Premier Jean Charest is accused by opponents of manipulating the calendar to ensure the strikes would be a top-of-mind issue for voters. His emergency law set the mid-to-late August dates for the return to colleges and universities, and then he called an election for that period.
If so, very few students appear to be playing their assigned part in Charest's supposed campaign script. The number of students on strike has diminished by more than four-fifths since the peak of the movement.
That doesn't mean the issue has disappeared completely; universities are set to reopen in the coming days and it's unclear how smooth that process will be.
One spokesman for the more militant student organization, the CLASSE, promised the students would continue striking in defiance of Bill 78. He said the action would persist during, and after, the election.
The group says about 43,000 students remain on strike — which is about one-tenth of all post-secondary students in the province.
"The strike is continuing in many faculties and many departments and universities and it will continue afterwards," said Jeremie Bedard-Wien, the spokesman for CLASSE, the most militant student association.
"What we've put forward for students is this idea of popular mobilization."
He said the current election — and the avoidance of student issues — only illustrates why many of the protesters distrust the traditional political parties.
"We recognize that the three main parties that can seize power haven't made much of a case in support of education," Bedard-Wien said.
"They haven't supported us much during the strike and we don't expect much from them at all — and that is why we argue for sustained mobilization."
The student issue showed some other potential Wednesday for resurfacing as an election issue.
The Parti Quebecois critic on the issue, Marie Malavoy, has urged students not to pay their fees for the semester. She told Le Soleil newspaper in Quebec City that universities that have sent out tuition bills with the new, higher, amount should have waited until after the election.
The PQ is promising to scrap the Charest government's $254-a-year, seven-year plan for tuition hikes if it gets elected. The PQ has not said how it would fill the fiscal gap but is promising to call a symposium on the issue.
Several universities have asked students for payment by the end of the month. The election is four days later.
The head of the more moderate university student association is asking people to wait before paying the fees universities are demanding.
"We are looking into whether we want to pursue that before the courts," said Martine Desjardins, the head of FEUQ, in an interview.
She maintains the demand for the payment violates Bill 78, which legislated the return to school and sets stiff fines for anyone blocking access to classrooms.
"The fees were supposed to be due at the beginning of the (fall) session in the month of October," she said.
"We're asking students to wait for us to give the word about what to do."