The jokes over Belgium's failure to form a government begin to turn sour – Nov 10th 2007

NOT with a whimper, but with a bang. After 150 days of squabbling over the formation of a new government, Belgium's political elite brought their fragile system of consensus rule crashing down on November 7th, with a direct clash between the two feuding linguistic groups. The official cause sounds technical: a bid by politicians from the Flemish majority to abolish the bilingual rights of 150,000 French-speakers who live in (otherwise Dutch-only) suburbs near Brussels. But by putting the plan to a vote in a parliamentary committee, Flemish leaders have broken the decades-old “Belgian pact”, under which the two language groups avoid holding a straight sectarian vote.

The vote itself was pure theatre. French-speaking members stormed out as soon as the motion was put, and it is now buried under a blizzard of procedural points. At issue is the splitting up of an electoral district known as Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (BHV) that straddles the boundaries of bilingual Brussels and monolingual Flanders. The effect would be to strip French-speakers in the “Halle-Vilvoorde” bit of the right to vote for French-speaking politicians from Brussels, and also of the right to have court cases heard by French-speaking judges. To the Flemish, it is anomalous for French-speakers to live in pristine Dutch-speaking suburbs, but still enjoy the rights they would have if they lived in Brussels. To their opponents, the Flemish are bent on a polite form of ethnic cleansing, creating a linguistically “pure” Flanders from which French is banished.

At least initially, the French-speakers did not walk away from the coalition talks altogether. Beneath their noisy outrage over the vote, French-speaking leaders muttered that coalition talks should perhaps continue on other matters. But real damage has been done. Until this week, the establishment could pretend that five months of talks over forming a new government were merely an extreme form of business as usual: coalitions across the language divide always take several weeks to form. Seasoned politicians have been rolling their eyes and tut-tutting as articles appeared in the foreign press, asking if the country was in a crisis that might lead to its break-up. It was only this week that the post-war record for squabbling (148 days, set in 1988) was beaten by Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat who is leading the coalition talks.

The sages murmured that the crisis has dragged on so long only because younger politicians such as Mr Leterme have little experience of coalition-building or indeed of federal government, and so know few of their counterparts from the other linguistic camp. Others blamed the European single currency, saying that the stability of the euro has made it safe for politicians to squabble forever: in the days when Belgian had its own franc, the threat of currency turmoil concentrated minds admirably. Yet this soothing talk sounds less convincing now that an ugly truth has been exposed: that the Flemish majority (who make up 60% of the population) are bent on re-ordering Belgium so that they have less to do with their French-speaking compatriots, whether they like it or not.

This could have been seen coming. Mr Leterme, formerly premier of Flanders, won the federal election on June 10th with a campaign based on flirting with separatism. In one notorious interview last year, he called Belgium an “accident of history” with no intrinsic value. Despite (or because of) this, he is still the man most Flemings want to see as prime minister (his approval rating in Flanders remains around 70%). He also has a mandate to stick it to French-speakers. A poll on November 5th in Het Laatste Nieuws, a Flemish newspaper, found that nine out of ten Dutch-speakers want to press on with stripping bilingual rights from French-speakers in BHV. The poll found only a narrow majority in favour of keeping Belgium together: as many as 63% thought an eventual break-up was inevitable.

To outsiders, this week's row could hardly have been more obscure. It is not much easier for Belgians, who have spent days studying supplements and wall charts given away with newspapers about the BHV question. It is perhaps enough to know only this: Belgium's feuding French- and Dutch-speaking politicians, often compared to partners in a grumpy (yet oddly long-lasting) marriage, have broken the taboo of direct confrontation. That need not spell the end of the union, but it is hardly a good omen for the future.

PARIS (Reuters) - Most French people in the region bordering Belgium would like to see France re-unite with Belgium's francophone region if the country breaks apart, according to an opinion poll published on Saturday.
Talks to form a new government in Belgium have dragged on for some 150 days since elections in June, and the absence of an agreement has prompted speculation that the country might split along linguistic fault lines.
A poll released before Sunday's publication of Le Journal du Dimanche said that 54 percent of those questioned wanted the mainly French-speaking southern Belgian region of Wallonia incorporated into France if a breakup occurred.
The region was briefly absorbed into the French empire after the 1789 revolution, but it has few happy memories for France because it was there, at Waterloo, that Napoleon suffered his final defeat in 1815 by a British army and its German allies.
The land was subsequently attached to the Netherlands until modern Belgium took shape in 1830.
The Journal du Dimanche survey, carried out by Ifop pollsters, showed that 66 percent of French people living along the border with Belgium wanted to see Wallonia become part of France against 53 percent in the rest of the country.
Some 41 percent were against the idea of unification and five percent declined comment.
(The Economist - Reporting by Crispian Balmer; editing by Tim Pearce)

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