VICTORIAVILLE, Que. - After a bitter three-month battle, there was hope Saturday of a breakthrough in Quebec's tuition crisis, with news of a tentative agreement reached between the provincial government and student leaders.
The deal, made public late in the evening, would include what amounts to an overall freeze on what students pay for the next six months, giving both sides some breathing room while negotiations continue.
It would also ensure the debate over tuition levels becomes a key election issue.
Premier Jean Charest must call an election by 2013, and opinion polls suggest most Quebecers side with his government in the dispute.
Still, it was unclear whether the deal, hammered out after a 24-hour negotiating session in Quebec City, would end months of unrest.
Students leaders were referring to the arrangement as a government "offer,'' while the government was using stronger language.
Premier Jean Charest was nonetheless pleased by the possibility of an end to the standoff, which reached an ugly climax with Friday's riot outside a Quebec Liberal Party convention.
"Everyone is relieved that at least we're seeing progress,'' he told reporters in Victoriaville.
"The goal is to have students return to class, (so that we can) create room for discussion."
As part of the deal, the Charest government would proceed with its tuition increases but at the same time cut back ancillary fees, allowing for an overall freeze until December 2012.
After that, the government could still proceed with its revised plan to increase tuition by $254 annually for seven straight years, but students are hoping savings can be found to limit that increase.
Student leaders were mostly warm to the offer, but those who they represent must still vote on the arrangement over the coming days.
Until then, the student strikes are still on.
"This is not the end (of the conflict) - but it's the beginning of the end,'' said Martine Desjardins, one of the three main student representatives.
The glimmer of a resolution came after one of the darkest days of the conflict.
A protester lost use of an eye after he was injured in a savage riot in Quebec that broke out Friday during a protest over tuition increases, health officials said.
The demonstrator was one of two young men admitted to hospital with serious injuries following the violent confrontation outside the Liberal meeting in Victoriaville.
The other man was admitted with fractures to his face and skull, along with a cerebral contusion.
In all, nine people were taken to hospital, including three police officers. One officer had been kicked, punched and beaten with a stick in scenes captured by television cameras.
Quebec provincial police made 109 arrests in connection with the riot _ many of them after pulling over school buses that were returning late Friday to Montreal.
The Charest Liberals had moved their convention from Montreal to Victoriaville, a normally sleepy agricultural community, to get away from the protests rocking Quebec.
But after Friday's violent events, there were more demonstrations including a peaceful one Saturday.
Outside the convention centre where Liberals were gathered, not everyone was immediately aware of the deal in Quebec City.
And not everyone cared. Among those joining the students were groups against shale gas drilling, wind turbines, and those promoting Quebec independence.
A small group of students held a lengthy sit-in outside the convention centre, facing off against riot police. Later, dozens of protesters tried to block the car exit to the convention centre where Liberals were staying.
As news slowly trickled through the crowd, though, tensions appeared to drop a few notches.
"It was time we reached a deal,'' Xavier Hegetschweiler, 18, the head of a student group at a Victoriaville college, said outside the convention centre.
"It's time for students to get back to class.''
As part of the deal, the Charest government would establish a committee to better manage university finances, a longstanding grievance amongst student groups. Any savings would be used to claw back student fees.
The government’s loan and bursaries program was also strengthened in the offer.
As for the previous day's disturbing events, Nicole Lamy, a 51-year-old mother with two children taking part in the protests, blamed the escalation of violence on Charest's government.
"It's very sad to see this happen,'' she said. "The contempt this government has shown students."
Quebec provincial police, meanwhile, pointed the finger at a small number of people who chose to stick around after things turned violent.
"We never lost control,'' Capt. Jean Finet said at a Saturday news conference.
"Most of the people who didn't want that kind of thing to happen, they left."
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