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Quebec student fight goes international: How a battle over $1,625 got noticed

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MONTREAL - What began as a provincial policy spat over tuition hikes in Quebec has transformed, in just over a year, into a movement of broader student unrest now receiving some international attention.

In the last few days, Quebec's student protests have received coverage in France, through Agence France-Presse, TV5, and a front-page photo in Le Monde. They also appeared in Australia, New Zealand, on Al Jazeera, and in the U.S., including on CNN.

A New York Times blog suggested tuition fees and student debt could become a key theme in President Barack Obama's bid for re-election as the president tries to energize young voters. The "French-Canadian students" were cited as an example in the tuition debate, as part of an international outcry against the high price of education.

The annual tuition for a private university in the U.S. is over $30,000 a year, with collective student debt poised to reach $1 trillion — which is even more than all the credit-card debt in that country. So why should Quebecers be complaining about a comparably measly $1,625 hike?

Protesters say it's because they want their education system to move in the other direction — away from the U.S. model and closer to a system like Sweden's, where post-secondary education is free.

The opposition has grown steadily, ever since the Quebec government announced its $325-a-year, five-year increases in the March 2011 budget. While the move would still leave Quebec with some of the lowest tuition rates in the country, protesters say they're fighting for principles.

Activists overseas are also joining in on the discussion about Quebec's tuition hikes, framing it as part of a larger historic fight.

Laurie Penny is a social activist and journalist for the U.K.'s Independent and Guardian newspapers who supports and writes about the international Occupy movement.

She's been paying attention to events in Quebec. Penny said the province's protesters represent the face of Occupy, as a growing demographic of graduates and students worldwide who fear they have piles of student debt but no future.

"I think it's a mistake to think of tuition hikes as a niche issue," she said. "Student debt and tuition hikes are not a niche or side issue in terms of what matters to young people, or to what matters to the future of the global economy."

The Occupy phenomenon began with student movements, she said, and the people involved are in fact mobilizing against similar problems — with youth leading the charge.

Martin Gendron, a student at the Universite du Quebec, said recent rowdy scenes have helped pique international interest.

At recent protests, a few vandals in the crowd have smashed windows and pelted projectiles at police. Police have responded by making multiple arrests and blasting chemical irritants into crowds — a reaction student activists have called excessive.

"The answer from the police is very violent," Gendron said. "That's something that's very strong in images and texts, and tends to go outside the local sphere."

In a statement last week, Amnesty International's French-Canadian branch expressed concern over the tactics employed by police and extended its support to Quebec students.

The human-rights organization denounced an excessive use of force, potentially arbitrary mass arrests, intimidation and profiling. It asked Quebec to "stop resorting to means which potentially interfere with the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest."

The student groups have received some support from neighbours in other parts of Canada as well.

Many Torontonians expressed solidarity with the protesters by handing over a petition with more than 700 signatures to the Quebec government on Thursday.

Alan Sears, a spokesman for the group that created the petition, said the student movement reflects a worldwide trend and could even influence actions in Ontario or elsewhere.

"Globally, we are seeing government after government adopt austerity priorities where they are cutting back on public services, increasing tuition fees — all these kinds of things," Sears said.

"Where there's an inspiring fight back against one part of this agenda, a lot of people start to pay attention."

Critics, however, have called protesters everything from deadbeats to unfocused — charges that Penny calls simply untrue.

"It's very, very naive and short-sighted when people say it's just lazy students who don't want to pay their fees. This is going to be a critical issue for everyone across the world economy over the next decade."

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the Quebec hikes were $1,625 annually, when in fact that amount would only come into effect over a period of at least five years.

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