Seams of Belgium’s Quilt Threaten to Burst
The New York Times - May 14, 2008

Jock Fistick for The New York Times

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.

A sign on the road into Liedekerke, Belgium, emphasizes the growing national divide with the words “Welcome to Our Flemish Town.” On the bridge, someone scrawled a prediction: “Belgium Bursts!”

Liedekerke wants Flemish to be its only language, a sign of the town’s autonomy.

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.

“België 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. Mertens’s grandfather, a bilingual teacher, refused an officer’s commission on principle.

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 can’t go on with the material if they don’t understand it,” she said. “It’s a struggle.” Her school provides language tutoring.

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 don’t 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 Belgium’s 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, “It’s not the principle of one man, one vote, and every problem in Belgium now becomes a problem of the communities. It’s a surrealistic spectacle, and the best answer is to divide the country.”

Liedekerke’s 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.

“It’s the wrong vision and method,” Mr. Keulen said in an interview in Brussels. “They can’t 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 quality.”

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 Belgium’s 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 can’t 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 they’re lagging even further behind us. They are really afraid we want to leave and drop them.”

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 Sägesser, an analyst at Crisp, a Brussels research group, is the future border of Flanders. “It’s about preventing bilingual Brussels from spreading further into Flanders, because if one day it should secede, Flanders couldn’t keep Brussels,” she said, given its mostly French-speaking population.

In Liedekerke, Mr. Mertens finds hypocrisies in the fight over children’s 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 we’re against the law, but this Flemish institution can do it,” he said, “and we’ve 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 don’t 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. “I’m convinced Belgium can’t 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. We’ve 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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