[lg policy] Belgium:

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jul 15 20:07:26 UTC 2010

The Language Divide, Writ Small, in Belgian Town
Published: July 15, 2010

WEMMEL, Belgium — Most of the families living in this well-to-do
community on the outskirts of Brussels are French-speaking. But the
law for this region of Belgium says that all official town business
must be conducted in Flemish. That means that police reports must be
written in Flemish. Voting materials must be issued in Flemish.
Seventy-five percent of the books and DVDs purchased for the library
must be, yes, in Flemish.

When the mayor of Wemmel, Christian Andries, presides over a town
council meeting he is not allowed to utter a single French word, even
to translate, or the business at hand may be annulled. “Of course,” he
said recently, with a sigh. “It is absurd.” Belgium is without a
government — again. And this picturesque bedroom community with a
cobblestone square offers a clear enough picture of why. Europe as a
whole may be busy papering over its differences, burying cultural
disparities and centuries of feuding. But not Belgium. It seems headed
the other way.

It was, in fact, a dispute over voting rights for French speakers in
Wemmel and a cluster of similar villages that brought down Belgium’s
last government. Unable to resolve the issue after more than three
years of trying, Prime Minister Yves Leterme threw in the towel (for
the third time) and the king finally accepted his resignation in
April. In the wake of last month’s elections, talks have begun in
hopes of forging a coalition that can lead Belgium. But even the
optimists do not expect a new government for months to come.

After the country’s 2007 election it took the Belgians about nine
months to form a government. Some analysts say that the main parties
are even more split this time, and some wonder whether they may even
be witnessing the beginning of the end of Belgium. “It is hard to know
where this will go,” said Lieven De Winter, a professor of politics at
the Université Catholique de Louvain, though like many others he
believes breaking up the country would be so complicated as to be
impossible, largely because neither side would give up Brussels, the

For Mr. Andries, this state of affairs comes as no surprise. A
friendly man of Flemish descent, he has been juggling the tensions
between the two halves of Belgium for more than a decade, running a
town that is technically on the Flemish-speaking side of the country,
but has become home to many French speakers looking for trees and
backyards not far from Brussels. Mr. Andries’s house was covered in
protest placards once because he was accused of forcing his librarian
to write letters in French to French theaters inquiring about
materials that might be available for the library. Not allowed. He
should have sent the letters in Flemish.

When he invited a Congolese singer, whose mother tongue is French, to
perform in Wemmel, there were so many complaints and threats that Mr.
Andries said he had to ask for police assistance. Last year, he was
heavily criticized in local Flemish papers for putting new windows in
the school for French-speaking Belgians before replacing those in the
Flemish school.
“There are 600 children in the French school and only 400 in the
Flemish school,” he said. “It seemed like the logical place to start.”

But Mr. Andries’s problems pale compared to three other mayors in this
Flemish region, called the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, or BHV. They were
elected more than four years ago but have never been officially
installed. The issue? They sent voting information, written in French,
to the French voters in their communities. In one of the towns,
Linkebeek, some 80 percent of the 4,700 inhabitants are
French-speaking. “It is hard to believe,” said Damien Thierry, who won
the election. “Belgium is an astonishing place right now.”

The ethno-linguistic fault line that runs through this country could
hardly be more pronounced. The country is really a federation made up
of three parts. Flanders in the north. French-speaking Wallonia in the
South and Brussels, officially bilingual. The French and the Flemish
each have their own political parties, their own newspapers and their
own television channels, which many experts blame for the current
state of affairs.

“The political parties have nothing to gain from saying anything nice
about each other,” said Yves Desmet, the political editor for a
Flemish newspaper, De Morgan, who has advocated for a nationwide
voting system. ke many others, he said he believed that forging a
coalition would be especially difficult this time. The big winners in
the election could hardly be farther apart. In the Flemish north, Bart
de Wever, who supports an independent Flemish homeland, emerged
triumphant with 28 percent of the vote. In southern French-speaking
Wallonia, the Socialists won 26 percent of the vote. Yet the disarray
comes at a particularly bad time. Belgium, like many other European
countries, is facing huge deficits. Some analysts say that it needs to
get its economic act together sooner rather than later.

Fueling the tensions is a change of economic fortune and a long grudge
match between the Flemish and the French. Belgium, a relatively new
country, declared its independence in 1830. At first, the country’s
aristocracy spoke French and the country’s French-speaking regions —
rich from iron and coal manufacturing — were often contemptuous of the
largely agricultural north. During World War I, most Belgian officers
were French-speaking and made little effort to translate for Flemish

These days, however, the French part of Belgium — population about
four million — is poorer, while Flanders, population about six
million, has grown wealthy with a diverse economy. Many Flemish voters
resent their taxes’ flowing south. In some parts of Wallonia, the
unemployment rate is close to 20 percent. Nonetheless, Mr. Desmet said
the Walloons can refuse a job if it is more than 15 miles from their
homes, and collect unemployment. “In the north, there are jobs that
could be filled,” he said. “That really annoys a lot of the Flemish.”

The voting-rights dispute in Wemmel and other towns in the BHV is so
complicated that virtually no one understands it. Essentially, it
gives French-speaking voters in the BHV the ability to vote for
Francophone parties on the ballot in Brussels. No similar agreement
exists for Flemings living in French-speaking areas. Most political
analysts say a maximum of two or three Parliament seats are at stake.
But the issue gnaws at the Flemish. “The French speakers here have a
right that the Flemish do not have,” said Anniek Bolsens, 37, who
moved to Wemmel nearly three years ago. “The constitutional court has
said it is unfair and it is.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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