Seams of Belgium's Quilt Threaten to Burst
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed May 14 12:38:03 UTC 2008
May 14, 2008
Memo From Liedekerke
Seams of Belgiums Quilt Threaten to Burst
By STEVEN ERLANGER
LIEDEKERKE, Belgium If Belgium vanishes one day, it will be because of
little towns like this one, where Flemish politicians are riding a new
wave of nationalism and pushing for an independent state. Liedekerke has
only 12,000 inhabitants, but its elected council has caused a stir by
insisting on the Flemish nature of the town. Not only must all town
business and schooling take place in Flemish, true throughout Flanders,
but children who cannot speak the language can be prohibited from holiday
outings, like hikes and swimming classes.
Belgi Barst! says the graffiti on a bridge near the train station, or
Belgium Bursts! the cry of the nationalists who want an independent
Flanders. But here they also want to keep the rich French speakers from
Brussels only 13 miles away and 15 minutes by train from buying up this
pretty landscape and changing the nature of the town. Marc Mertens, 53, is
the full-time secretary of the town, a professional manager who works
under the elected, but part-time, town council. Sitting in a cafe near the
old church Liedekerke is thought to mean church on the little hill he
describes how his grandfather fought in World War I under officers who
gave commands only in French. And then they would say in French: For the
Flemish, the same! The phrase still rankles, and Mr. Mertenss
grandfather, a bilingual teacher, refused an officers commission on
Mr. Mertens, a handsome, genial man, is worried about his town. Brussels
is coming this way, he said, explaining that the people here, having
gained some autonomy, do not want to be overwhelmed again by another
French-speaking ascendancy. More schoolchildren, taught in Flemish, have
French-speaking parents. When I was young I never heard a foreign language
here, he said. Now every day I meet people speaking French. Marleen
Geerts, 48, a computer-science teacher of 13-year-olds, said teaching
French-speakers took time. You cant go on with the material if they dont
understand it, she said. Its a struggle. Her school provides language
Some Flemish nationalists, like Johan Daelman, the leader of the
right-wing, anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang party here and a town councilman,
want to keep out French-speaking immigrants from Africa, all in the name
of keeping Liedekerke unspoiled free of the crime and racial tensions of
Brussels. We dont want Liedekerke to become like a suburb of Paris, Mr.
Daelman said, describing the riots, car burnings and attacks on the police
by mostly African immigrants to France. Big city problems are coming here,
and we want to stop it.
That combination of national pride, rightist politics, language purity and
racially tinged opposition to immigration is a classic formula these days
in modern Europe, what critics call a kind of nonviolent fascism. Flemish
nationalists have another complaint. Flemish are 60 percent of Belgiums
population, and inhabit the richest part, with much lower unemployment
than the French-speaking Wallonia part. The French speakers used to rule
us, Mr. Daelman said. Now, in the national government, he added, Its not
the principle of one man, one vote, and every problem in Belgium now
becomes a problem of the communities. Its a surrealistic spectacle, and
the best answer is to divide the country.
Liedekerkes effort to restrict school outings by language embarrassed both
the federal and Flanders governments, both seated in Brussels. Marino
Keulen, the Flemish interior minister, vetoed it, though the town intends
to proceed anyway. Its the wrong vision and method, Mr. Keulen said in an
interview in Brussels. They cant do it by a language test. He said the
problem was the popularity of the Liedekerke program with Brussels
residents who want to use the facilities of Flanders, which are of a high
Other ways to restrict the program, using fees and residency
qualifications, seem fine, and less embarrassing. But Mr. Keulen, too, is
annoyed by the subsidies to Wallonia, as Flanders has less than 6 percent
unemployment (compared with 16 percent) and produces 81 percent of
Belgiums exports. He said he supported a federal state, but even his chief
of staff, Steven Vansteenkiste, complains about a French-speaking veto. We
are a majority and very often we cant do what we want, even in our own
region, because the French minority blocks us, Mr. Vansteenkiste said. We
see a lot of money going from the north to the south, but theyre lagging
even further behind us. They are really afraid we want to leave and drop
Little Liedekerke is important nationally, too, because it is part of the
electoral and juridical district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, known as
BHV, at the heart of the inability to form a stable Belgian federal
government. Flemish legislators want to divide the district, separating
largely French-speaking Brussels, which has special bilingual status in
Flanders as the federal capital, from the other Flemish areas. That would
stop French-speaking politicians from seeking votes in Flemish areas and
effectively end special bilingual rights for some 70,000 French speakers
living in Flanders, but outside Brussels.
But Wallonian legislators are blocking the changes, fearing that their
power is eroding, that the Flemish are doing some legal ethnic cleansing
and that a divided Belgium will end the subsidies that flow south from
richer Flanders. Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat who is
federal prime minister, promised constitutional changes that would enhance
regional autonomy. It took him nearly 150 days to form a government, but
its fate is still in question, saved only by an agreement last Friday
morning to postpone the BHV imbroglio once again, until at least mid-July.
A prime reason for the fight, said Caroline Sgesser, an analyst at Crisp,
a Brussels research group, is the future border of Flanders. Its about
preventing bilingual Brussels from spreading further into Flanders,
because if one day it should secede, Flanders couldnt keep Brussels, she
said, given its mostly French-speaking population. In Liedekerke, Mr.
Mertens finds hypocrisies in the fight over childrens outings. The
Flanders sports association, Bloso, controlled by the Flanders government,
runs sports activities and camps. But Bloso also says that children who do
not speak or understand Flemish can be sent home without a refund, Mr.
Mertens said. Keulen says were against the law, but this Flemish
institution can do it, he said, and weve written to them about it.
So Liedekerke intends to retain its restricted outings program, but under
the letter of the law. It will soon vote on an amendment that says that
its outings program has a Dutch character, Mr. Mertens said. And instead
of saying that the monitor can refuse kids who dont understand Flemish, we
will write that the monitor can refuse children who disturb the outings.
Of course, Mr. Mertens said, smiling, one can understand disturb in
different ways. To help keep out relatives and friends who live in
Brussels, Liedekerke will charge them three times as much as residents.
Mr. Mertens expects his two daughters, 12 and 13, to live in an
independent Flanders, and he thinks he may, too. Im convinced Belgium cant
last, he said.
The fight over BHV will be seen as the start of the war between the
Flemish and the French speakers, he said, adding: The Flemish people are
becoming more self-aware and more decisive. Weve been ruled long enough by
the French people, and our time has come. It may take 10, 20 or 30 years.
But this Belgium will become superfluous.
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