MONTREAL — A politico and a media hound, 21-year-old radical Quebec student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has become a force to be reckoned with in talks with the government over tuition fee hikes.
The spokesman for the student union Classe showed up for an interview with AFP on foot, stubble on his face, his hands in his pockets. He was intercepted by a fan who asked to be photographed with him. “It happens a lot,” he said.
Since February, the Montreal native has been at the center of demonstrations raging against an 82-percent or more than $1,700 increase in school fees in the Canadian province.
Appearing almost nightly in television interviews in sparkling form with a confident posture, he has refused to cede an inch in the feud with provincial Premier Jean Charest’s government over tuition and a special law restricting protests in the wake of clashes with police.
As a result, he has received death threats weekly, no longer goes out alone and at demonstrations is always surrounded by three or four fellow student activists — “a bit larger than myself” — acting as bodyguards.
A veritable prodigy pulled out of a hat. “Some people say that he is more eloquent than many ministers. You could say he’s a born politician. We didn’t know him before, he just burst onto the scene during this crisis,” Antoine Robitaille, a journalist with the daily Le Devoir, told AFP.
“The two other student leaders (representing FEUQ and FECQ) are also astonishingly eloquent,” he said. “But I’d say that he’s the most Daniel Cohn-Bendit of the three,” he added, referring to the student leader of the 1968 French protests which rocked Paris.
“Of course, in conforming to the 21st century, he’s not actually calling for a revolution.”
Although Nadeau-Dubois rejects labels such as “revolutionary” or “Leninist” suggested by some government ministers, he noted that the proposed hikes in tuition fees “are but one example of a series of neo-liberal policies, of austerity, of privatization” adopted by the government.
He insisted also that he is not the “head” of Classe, but only its main “spokesman.”
Unlike the two other student groups which are represented at the bargaining table by union presidents, Classe sent an elected negotiating committee to represent its interests.
Nadeau-Dubois said the government tried to elevate his stature within Classe in order to then try to cut him down to size, “to marginalize Classe and paint a picture of a very radical organization.”
“Quebec’s public safety minister told me that he could have me arrested. They looked into every nook and cranny of my past and treated me like I was behind all of the violence in the street, it went pretty far,” he said.
Now in their sights, he has become a key figure in the negotiations with the government aimed at ending more than three months of demonstrations, but suggested the student movement has become much bigger than him.
Thrust into activism at a young age, the son of a union boss, in his third year of history studies, he says he has no political aspirations.
“I’ve always believed that the great political advances in Quebec occurred because people mobilized in the streets,” he commented.
Despite a soaring public profile, friends and family say he continues to be the same person as before. “For me, he hasn’t changed,” his friend and former press attache Anne-Marie Provost confided to AFP.
He’s maybe a bit more “impatient,” a bit less “available.” It’s hard to get his fellow activists to say anything at all bad about him. “We must stop glorifying him. His image reflects in the mirror. He’s a man,” concluded one.
His parents meanwhile, are proud of him. But also “they’re a bit nervous and worried about my legal woes” linked to the demonstrations, said Nadeau-Dubois. “As we say at our place, we’re in deep s***.”