MONTREAL: The Quebec government invited student groups Thursday for talks to end a three-month conflict over a planned hike in tuition fees after nearly 700 people were arrested overnight in the Canadian province.
No date was set for the meeting to which the four main student groups were invited, but it could talk place early next week, said the president of the FECQ student union, Leo Bureau-Blouin.
"We want to put the odds on our side to reach a definitive agreement that will bring peace back to our streets and return students to school benches," said Education Minister Michelle Courchesne.
Protests, some of which turned violent, have raged for over three months against a plan by provincial Premier Jean Charest's government to raise tuition fees at Quebec universities by 82 percent, or $1,700, over five years.
Many protesters are also now rallying against a special law passed last week requiring organizers to notify authorities eight hours ahead of public protests and suspending classes at strike-bound universities until mid-August.
Police in Montreal had said that Wednesday's unsanctioned protest would be tolerated if there was no trouble but after some unruly behavior around midnight, they moved in and arrested 518 demonstrators. Another 176 people were detained in Quebec City.
All were issued with a fine exceeding $600 and released early Thursday, a police spokesman said.
It was the first time that law enforcement conducted such a large mass arrest in the French-speaking province.
Several thousand demonstrators had poured into Montreal's central square for the rally against the special law.
About two hundred youths returned to the streets of Montreal on Thursday to express their anger at the law, this time wearing ninja and pirate costumes in a festive atmosphere.
"Throw Charest to the crocodiles!" said the youths, some wearing pointed hats with feathers and eye patches.
The conflict escalated on Sunday with more than 300 overnight arrests after the passing of the controversial new law. On Tuesday, tens of thousands of demonstrators ignored their official itinerary as they marked the 100th day of the movement.
Bill 78 prohibits freedom of assembly anywhere in the province without prior police approval and requires protesters to give the authorities eight hours' notice before an event and follow a planned route.
Rather than quelling the unrest, it appears to have made things worse for the embattled premier.
The crisis has already felled one cabinet member, education minister Line Beauchamp, who said she was quitting politics altogether because she had "lost confidence in the goodwill of student leaders."
After nine years in power, Charest hoped an initially popular hike in fees might boost his dismal poll numbers, but months of building protests coupled with disapproval for the new law appear to have had the opposite effect.
A poll released on Tuesday by the Journal de Montreal found an 18 percent shift in favor of the students, compared to a poll taken 10 days earlier.
The QMI/Leger Marketing survey still showed the students trailing the government by eight points on the central question of who respondents supported, but the momentum has clearly turned.
Some 53 percent of respondents agreed that Bill 78 went "too far," while 32 percent judged it to be fair and eight percent believed it didn't go far enough.
With elections looming before December 2013, Charest -- who has been in power since 2003 and is the first Quebec premier in over 50 years to win three consecutive elections -- is running out of time to turn things around.