Belgium: Flemish and Francophones, into the void

Not quite partial to French chanson. Members of Flemish nationalist group Voorpost (Outpost) with cardboard coffin called Belgium.
Not quite partial to French chanson. Members of Flemish nationalist group Voorpost (Outpost) with cardboard coffin called Belgium.
22 April 2010 – Trouw (Amsterdam)

Just two months before Belgium takes over the EU presidency, the 22 April resignation of PM Yves Leterme has once again revived fears that the country is on the verge of falling apart at the seams. At the heart of the crisis, disputes over rights and privileges of French and Flemish speakers in the bilingual constituency of BHV, or Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde.

Five Flemish flags flutter proudly in front of the town hall in Lennik. Unfurled across the balcony is a banner saying "Divide BHV". The mayor of Flemish Lennik, Willy De Waele, explains the situation. "It’s quite simple really: the very existence of BHV is at odds with the partitioning of Belgium." The country is in fact split up into three regions: Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital. BHV (Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde) is the only voting district straddling the regional border. It encompasses the Brussels-Capital region [with its 19 municipalities], which is bilingual, along with 35 Flemish municipalities, including Lennik.

Consequently, the French-speaking parties can garner votes there [in European and federal elections] among voters officially residing in Flanders. [Conversely, however, Flemish residents of Wallonia are not allowed to vote on the Flemish party tickets in Brussels, which the Flemish consider unfair]. But that’s not the only thing that peeves the Flemings: "Two legal principles are at loggerheads: jus soli and human rights. The French speakers living here in Flanders assert their rights. They settle down here, but don’t accept our language or our culture," bemoans De Waele.

To build a house you must speak Flemish

Lennik is a rural area a mere 10 km from Brussels. More and more urbanites from Brussels are moving there. "Lennik is a green Flemish town, and we intend to keep it that way,” says the mayor. In consequence, the municipality requires that those who buy land to build on speak Flemish or at least be willing to learn it. "That has to be recorded in the notarised deed,” explains De Waele. In spite of that proviso, the Flemish are still worried about the ongoing Frenchification of the country.

De Waele speaks French perfectly. "Personally, I adore the language and I like conversing in French, with Damien, for example, who’s a friend of mine.” Damien Thiéry, the French-speaking mayor of Linkebeek, corroborates: "I’ve a good rapport with Willy," he says. Like Lennik, Linkebeek is a Flemish town within BHV, but bordering on Brussels. Its French speakers make up by far the majority and enjoy certain linguistic and administrative prerogatives: they have the right to express themselves in French in dealing with the local administration and to obtain documents in the language of their choice. But Thiéry has never been officially appointed mayor because the Flemish government feels he has not applied the language rules to the letter. The Francophones want his appointment officialised in exchange for the partitioning of BHV.

French-speaking councillors can't speak French

"In my opinion, democracy implies abiding by the law,” says Thiéry, in fairly decent Dutch. "But the Flemish region is systematically chipping away at the prerogatives [for French speakers]. To give you an example, we’re not allowed to speak French at town meetings anymore. I like the Flemish culture and people a lot. Unfortunately, though, some extremist Flemish politicians are hell bent on independence." Thiéry does not understand the Flemish anxiety about "Frenchification": "Why would they be afraid? Everything’s sorted out by the law.” However, he does comprehend the sensitivity about French culture, which dominated Belgium for some time: "But the Flemish are making a big fuss about it."

The two mayors apparently agree on one thing: there seems to be no viable solution. "I think that in ten years Belgium won’t exist anymore. And I think that’d be a shame,” says Thiéry. De Waele, for his part, would not shed a tear: "This monkeyland – if you’ll pardon the expression – hasn’t been working for years. You can’t reconcile fire and water, you’ve got to accept that.” He also observes a radicalisation within the populace: "Ten years ago, people were rather indifferent. But nowadays I hear them calling out things like ‘C’mon Willy, keep at it. Don’t let ’em con you.’"

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