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Wallonia battles wasteland image

Belgian politicians are struggling to end a crisis that has paralysed government for 16 months. At its heart are tensions between the country's north and south. In the second of a series of articles on Belgium, Henri Astier looks at French-speaking Wallonia's efforts to change its fortunes and prosper within a united Belgium.


Brownfield sites are the old face of Charleroi

Many in Belgium's Dutch-speaking north regard French-speaking southerners as a work-shy lot trapped in a sclerotic rust belt.

They contrast Flanders' entrepreneurial, service-led economy to Wallonia's struggle to overcome the collapse of its smokestack industries.

If Wallonia has a serious image problem, Charleroi, the region's second-largest city, has an even worse one.

A quarter of its workforce is out of work. And following a string of scandals in the past three years, the city has become a byword for corruption in Wallonia itself.

"Whenever a minor scandal arises in a small town, it is nicknamed 'Charleroi'," says Olivier Chastel, a centre-right politician who made his mark fighting mismanagement there and is now Belgium's deputy foreign minister.

Hard times

Arriving in the city by rail does little to dispel the stereotypes. In the distance, a disused steel factory offers a Dantesque picture of industrial blight.

Aeropole business park in Charleroi, photo courtesy of Igretec
The Aeropole is the new face of Charleroi's economy

Outside the station, the rattling tramways appear to have been built in Eastern Europe circa 1962.

You reach the city centre after hurrying past beggars and a red-light district.

Sitting at a cafe, Murielle de Gerlache, 34, and Valom Idrizaz, 25, a couple from Viroinval further south, mull over a bleak future.

The mother of two has been unemployed for three years and social services are threatening to cut off her benefits.

"They say I'm not trying hard enough to find work. But job hunting is hell for me," she says.

There is no regular bus service from her village - and Ms de Gerlache blames the penny-pinching Flemish for this. "They try to keep their wealth but forget the time when they came here for jobs."

What about moving to an area with better transport? "We have the right to live where we choose," objects Mr Idrizaz, who is also unemployed.

Hopelessness and urban decay may be in evidence in central Charleroi, but on the outskirts the picture is changing.

The old slag heaps dotted over the landscape are overgrown with greenery.

"We used to be called the 'black country' because we had heavy industry and mines, but this no longer reflects economic reality in the region," says Nathalie Czerniatynski of Igretec, a body that promotes development in the area.

"Our phone is always ringing; the companies keep coming," she says. Her main problem, she says, is turning farmland into business estates fast enough.

Rust never sleeps

Charleroi is home to such international giants as Caterpillar and Johnson & Johnson's.

Its corporate showcase is the Aeropole, a business park-cum-research hub built in the 1990s near the airport.

With ponds and futuristic buildings, it looks more like Silicon Valley than Satanic Mills.

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Most of the Aeropole's 138 companies are local firms that belie Wallonia's reputation as an entrepreneurial black hole.

One of them, Ecoplast Technology, has found a revolutionary way to make car parts, which it sells to automakers worldwide.

"Here in Wallonia big companies find the small specialists that add something to their products," says Bernard Gonsette, Ecoplast's managing director.

He says he ignores Flemish slights about Wallonia's business culture: "I don't have time for arguments when I'm busy selling to Iran and Romania, and taking on the American market."

The Aeropole exemplifies a Walloon turnaround that began a decade ago.

The region phased out subsidies to doomed industries, streamlined business paperwork, and wooed investors with tax breaks and other incentives.

Support from trade unions was crucial to the transition, in a country where 80% of the workforce is unionised.

"We could have chosen a purely welfare approach, but we chose reform," says Antonio di Santo, head of the Charleroi branch of the FGTB union federation.

"We try very hard to shake off the region's rotten image, as well as stereotypes about lazy Walloons," he adds, pointing out that fewer days are lost to strikes in Wallonia than in Flanders.

Need work, won't travel

Wallonia's economy may not be the basket case many think it is, but it still has a long way to go.

Flemish and Walloons give their views on tensions in Belgium

The region still lags behind Flanders by almost every measure - productivity, exports, income, etc.

Most painfully, unemployment tops 17% - while the Flemish have labour shortages. "Walloons have problems travelling a few dozen kilometres to find jobs in Flanders," Olivier Chastel says.

And while the idea of southerners living off the industrious north can be overstated by some Flemish politicians, it is not utterly baseless.

A Belgian economist recently calculated that if Wallonia was on its own - without Flanders or Brussels - each of its residents would earn 1,200 euros less a year ($1,600, 900).

This enduring economic gap between north and south is a key reason behind Walloon resistance to Flemish devolution plans. Left to its own devices - notably for welfare - the south would be much poorer.

But economic fears alone do not explain Wallonia's fervent attachment to the Belgian state.

You do not encounter there the profound sense of national identity that is ubiquitous in Flanders.

"There is no Walloon nation," says historian Vincent Dujardin, from the Catholic University of Louvain.

Looking south

Most southerners are proud of their region, but feel it needs to be part of a larger whole.

Culturally I feel French. I don't see the difference between a 'chti' (French northerner) and me
Thibault de la Motte

This was highlighted by a recent poll, which indicated that a tiny minority of Walloons wanted Belgium to break up - but that if secession was forced on them, about half wanted to be attached to France.

Some are already calling for such a move - particularly in Wallonia's economic capital, Liege.

A free principality for 800 years before joining Belgium, Liege has strong historic links to France and to this day holds fireworks displays on 14 July.

"A mere two centuries of Belgium have not severed those bonds," says Thibault de la Motte, a law student from Liege.

"Culturally I feel French. I don't see the difference between a 'chti' (French northerner) and me."

At present Walloons calling for union with France are very much in the minority. But their numbers could be boosted if nationalists continue to do well in Flanders.

Whether France would agree to take in Wallonia, of course, is another matter.

The last time the French tried to expand their territory - almost two centuries ago - the rest of Europe descended on them near a small Walloon town called Waterloo.




SEE ALSO
Belgium's devolution conundrum
29 Sep 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Belgium
10 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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