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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Belgian far-right party rallies support
Vlaams Blok supporter at rally
The Vlaams Blok is enjoying electoral success
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By Shirin Wheeler
BBC Brussels correspondent

Followers of Belgium's far-right Vlaams Blok party say their May Day rally outside the city of Bruges was their biggest ever.

Support for the party, which is fiercely anti-immigration and supports independence for the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, has been rising steadily for the last 10 years.

Filip Dewinter
Filip Dewinter says his party is being treated unfairly
Its leader, Filip Dewinter, has openly welcomed the success of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the National Front in France.

As the rally got under way, supporters of Vlaams Blok waved the yellow flag of Flanders and chanted "eigen volk eerst" - our people first.

The party's president, Frank Van Hecke, received a tumultuous welcome and told the gathering that with the success of politicians like Le Pen and the Dutch right-winger Pim Fortuyn, it was clear that their support was on the rise.

Softer image

"In all of Europe the establishment is quaking," he said. "We are the only hope for the citizens - those who are misunderstood, neglected and ignored by the political elite."

Still pushing a programme that is tough on crime and fiercely anti-immigration it is clear the Vlaams Blok is also engaged in some serious image making.

For this year's May Day celebrations the party faithful and their children took over one of Flanders' biggest amusement parks, keen to show that their appeal goes beyond the traditional far right.

It is also pushing what the party calls its "social economic policies" - more support for the self-employed, for families, better maternity provision and child benefits, but above all jobs for the Flemish people.

The most important thing is our people first, nothing for the immigrants

Vlaams Blok supporter
"This is about our identity, our Flemish roots, about where we are going," said one man with his two young sons at the rally.

A woman, taking her children to enjoy the amusements, said: "I am not what you would call a typical extreme right-wing supporter, I just want a peaceful life for my children and my grandchildren."

Another Vlaams Blokker was more forthright.

"The most important thing is our people first, nothing for the immigrants," she said.

Election success

In the last decade, support for the Vlaams Blok has risen steadily at local and national elections.

In the federal parliament it holds 15 seats and 15% of the seats in the Flemish regional parliament.

In the local councils of two of Belgium's biggest cities - Antwerp and Mechelen - it is the single largest party.

Its 33% of the vote in the last local elections in Antwerp would normally have delivered the far right control of city hall, but a coalition of all the other groups including Liberals, Socialists, Greens and Conservatives has so far kept it out of power.

Vlaams Blok supporter
Supporters want an independent Flanders
Leona Detiege, who has been Antwerp's socialist mayor since 1995, says the "cordon sanitaire" keeping out the Blok is about protecting all of Antwerp's citizens.

"We have an international community here - 150 different nationalities," she says.

"Telling them that the fascists are now in a majority just wouldn't be a good signal."

But Filip Dewinter, the clean cut leader of Belgium's far right, has been quick to make capital out of his opponents' tactics.

"They stay in power and we stay in opposition. What is the point of democracy, of elections if they don't respect them?"

It is an argument that could even be winning the Blok new supporters.

Many believe it is time that Belgium's political establishment found some other tactics to combat the far right.

See also:

22 Apr 02 | Europe
Le Pen vote shocks Europe
02 May 02 | Europe
Where now after May Day?
09 Oct 00 | Europe
Belgium's far right
07 Jun 00 | Europe
EU combats racism
21 Mar 00 | World
Greying West 'needs immigrants'
12 Apr 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Belgium
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