Language Battle tearing Belgium apart

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 16 15:58:34 UTC 2005

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd

May 09, 2005

The language battle that is tearing Belgium apart
>>From Anthony Browne in Brussels

LANGUAGE wars between French and Flemish-speakers in Belgium have
reignited, sparking riots, bringing the Government to the brink of
collapse and prompting some commentators to say that the country is
finished. The dispute, over whether 120,000 French-speakers living in
Flemish areas should have the right to elect French- speaking politicians,
arouses high passions in a country split between the two languages.

As the apparently innocuous spat in an electoral district just outside
Brussels escalated out of control, demonstrations ended in violent
confrontations with police. Senior government ministers cancelled all
other work for emergency negotiations, but failed to broker a deal over
the weekend. It is clear there is no progress, Laurette Onkelink, the
Francophone Socialist vice-premier said.

The unresolved dispute will now be handed over to the federal parliament
to try to broker a deal. For the Government, for the majority and the
country, this week will be pivotal, Johan Vande Lanotte, the Institutional
Reform Minister, said. Such is the anger on both sides of the linguistic
divide that the French-language Le Soir newspaper wondered on its front
page: Is Belgium finished?

The linguistic schism is so deep that no political party yet straddles the
language divide. There are two separate Socialist parties, one French and
one Flemish, a dialect of Dutch. There are two national theatres, and
universities and hospitals are either French or Flemish, with doctors
sending patients to a particular hospital on the basis of their language.

Belgium  the last surviving artificially created state in Europe after the
collapse of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia  has tried to
resolve the tensions by dividing itself into three semi-independent
regions. In the north is the Flemish-speaking Flanders, where the largest
political party is the separatist Vlaams Berlang; in the south, the poorer
French-speaking Waloonia; and embedded within Flanders is Brussels, the
only region of the country that is officially bilingual, although in
practice it is more than 80 per cent Francophone.

The latest dispute has arisen because Brussels is surrounded by a commuter
belt in Flemish territory and French-speakers living there want to have
the same language rights as if they lived in Brussels. In Flemish
communities, all official business and advertising has to be in Flemish,
making it difficult for French-speakers to have dealings with their local

The Flemish, who make up 60 per cent of the 10.5 million population,
complain that in many areas, most notably Brussels, French is taking over.
Brussels was historically a Flemish city and is still the capital of the
Flanders region, as well as the national capital but it has become almost
totally Francophone, making the Flemish resentful that they have
difficulty using their own language in their own capital.,,3-1604253,00.html

 Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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