Page last updated at 05:06 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 06:06 UK

War of words in divided Belgium

Belgian politicians are starting talks on Wednesday, aimed at ending a crisis that has paralysed government for 16 months. At the heart of the stalemate are the rival aspirations of the Dutch-speaking and Francophone communities. In the third of a series of articles on Belgium, Henri Astier looks at mixed areas around Brussels, where relations are at their most fraught.

Fernand herman's grave in Overijse
Fernand Herman worked hard for European reconciliation
When Fernand Herman died in 2005, his widow thought of a fitting epitaph for the former Belgian cabinet minister and Euro MP: "L'Europe est ma patrie" (Europe is my homeland).

But the funeral director warned her that the authorities of Overijse, a Flemish town, would take a dim view of a French-language grave.

Rudy Herman suggested Latin - and "Europa patria mea" passed muster.

Her husband is probably the only French-speaker buried in the cemetery who is remembered by more than a mere name and two dates.

Like many other municipalities near Brussels, Overijse takes language very seriously.

The capital is a cosmopolitan, largely French-speaking enclave within Flanders - and as its swelling population moves out, the suburbs are fighting to preserve their Flemish identity.

A polite request

In Overijse, the local authorities' zeal is in evidence on the high street. In May, a local restaurant received a letter from the Overijse council, which read:

"As you know, this is a Flemish commune, whose official language is Dutch. However, we notice that your neon sign, 'Thai takeaway', is in English only. We would like to request that you change this to 'Thai meeneemrestaurant'.

"We are also asking you to greet your customers in Dutch 'Goede dag' or 'Goede avond', instead of just in French."

Many non-Dutch shopkeepers insist relations with the Overijse authorities are civil, and accusations of "linguistic cleansing" levelled by some French-speakers are overdone.

A few shops down from the Thai takeaway, a new brasserie has a distinctly Gallic feel to it.

"Moules marinieres" feature prominently on the menu, and the stereo plays songs by Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour.

Eric Vermersch, the manager, says he uses a Dutch-speaker in his dealings with the town hall, and there is always a Flemish waiter on hand in the brasserie.

"There is a gentleman's agreement. As long as you respect others, you're OK," Mr Vermersch says. "This is nothing like Northern Ireland and Orange marches."


Bloody ethnic strife is not about to break out in Brussels' leafy suburbs - but the war of words can get nasty.

Militant groups, such as the Taal Aktie Komitee (TAK), specialise in vandalising non-Dutch billboards and facilities.

Graffiti in Overijse
The Overijse repair shop is regularly spray-painted by militants
One Overijse business whose owner has been resisting official requests to change its English-language sign - "textile repair shop" - is regularly spray-painted with "Nederlands" ("Dutch") graffiti.

Some shopkeepers feel under such pressure that they will only speak under condition of anonymity.

One, in Tervuren, says Belgium's government crisis has poisoned the atmosphere, and led to many Flemish people boycotting his restaurant.

"Over the past 15 months our sales have fallen by 35%," he says. "I'm from a mixed family. I grew up speaking both Dutch and French, I find it sad that it has come to this."

In another suburb, "Jeff" says local officials are encouraging people to report any non-Dutch in-store advertising, adding that he once received a letter complaining about some ads in his food shop.

"I cannot bear for people to tell me how to run my business," Jeff says. "Most of my customers are non-Dutch speakers. If I speak only Dutch, I might as well close up shop."

In fact that is exactly what Jeff is doing. He is moving to France.

Remembering Passchendaele

Flemish linguistic sensitivity is rooted in history.

Belgium was run as a French-speaking state for at least a century after independence in 1830, denying the language rights of the majority of its population.

Veronique caprassde
We want to preserve our identity and our culture
Veronique Caprasse
Kraainem deputy mayor
Many Flemish people will tell you that their ancestors died during World War I because they could not understand the orders of French-speaking officers.

Historian Bruno De Wever of Ghent university says this is a "romantic story" popularised after the war by those fighting for Flemish rights - "the language of war is not all that complicated," he points out.

But the fact that this story remains in circulation shows how central language is to Flemish identity.

Near Brussels, linguistic defensiveness is fuelled not just by historical grievances, but also fears for the future. What would happen if the flight to the suburbs turned the Flemish into a minority on their own soil?

In some areas, this nightmare scenario has already happened. About 80% of the population of Kraainem, for instance, consists of non Dutch-speakers.

Through the sheer force of numbers, they are running the place. The mayor and all his team are native French-speakers.

Bad blood

Kraainem is one of six Flemish towns around Brussels where, under a 1963 constitutional agreement, French-speakers have been granted special rights, notably services in French.

Tensions between local leaders from the two communities are running high. Deputy Mayor Veronique Caprasse says the Flemish are determined to roll back the special language rights.

If nobody speaks Dutch in a Flemish town, it still belongs to Flanders
Luk Van Biesen
Belgian MP
She regards the regular Dutch-language mailshots sent by the regional government to Kraainem's French-speakers as "a form of harassment".

Her community, Ms Caprasse says, is being threatened by a nationalist wave that has gone from strength to strength in the past three decades.

"We want to preserve our identity, our culture," she says.

"We don't reject the Flemish people - we have good relations with them. The whole problem comes from Flemish politicians."

Flemish leaders, on the other hand, feel it is Kraainem's natives who are being sidelined.

Local councillor Luk Van Biesen, who is also a Belgian MP, says this is the result of a long-term plan by French-speaking politicians to take over the suburbs of Brussels.

But he insists that Flemish land is sacrosanct: "If nobody speaks Dutch in a Flemish town - that will not change our opinion: it still belongs to Flanders."

Mr Van Biesen says he understands the measures taken in some suburbs to stem an expanding wave of newcomers demanding special rights.

"If you give them one inch of ground, they will try to spread to other parts a couple of years later," he says.


That lesson is not lost on neighbouring Zaventem. The town, where the Brussels airport is located, is home to a large expatriate community and immigrants from all over the world.

Flemish and Walloons give their views on tensions in Belgium

But Mayor Francis Vermeiren is determined to uphold Flemishness. All visitors to the town hall must bring an interpreter if they don't speak Dutch, as staff are banned from speaking another language.

"I speak English to the people from London, and 'je parle en francais' to the people from Wallonia," he says. "We respect the culture of everyone, but we ask that they respect our culture also."

Zaventem has also set a controversial Dutch language requirement for people applying to buy cheap land from the municipality.

"The point is not to keep foreigners out," Mr Vermeiren insists. "The condition is that they should have to either know or learn the language."

But some who are learning Dutch feel they could be made to feel more welcome in Zaventem. Souhaila, a 16-year-old student, says her native French is banned from the school grounds.

"If they catch us speaking French in playground they tell us to stop. If we continue we get a detention. This bothers me," she says.

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

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