Ethnic tensions continue to simmer in Belgium, despite financial crisis





Rudi Coel scowled at the sight of the Thai restaurant advertising "Takeaway."

"We're in Flanders, so that should say 'Meenemengerechten,' " said the 50-year-old social worker, using the proper Dutch word.

The euro zone is in turmoil, and Belgium's heavy government debts are drawing comparisons with those of Greece. But the main issue before Belgians in their general election Sunday speaks to a much deeper concern here: language....

The simmering tensions between the country's Dutch-speaking Flemish majority and its Francophone minority are as old as the hills. The latest feud, over the Brussels suburbs, tore apart a coalition government in April, triggering the June 13 parliamentary elections.

The 35 small suburban towns at the center of the dispute are home to tens of thousands of French-speaking Belgians and English-speaking expatriates. These people have a special legal status: They're in Dutch-speaking Flanders but, under a 1963 treaty, they are treated as part of Brussels in national elections and in some judicial matters. Brussels is formally controlled by both language groups, but, in practice, is mostly populated, and run, by Francophones....

All the leading Flemish parties advocate repealing the 1963 treaty and, like Mr. Coel, they actively campaign to make the suburbs monolingual. They see French-speakers as an occupying force that has not been contained since Belgium was set up as a buffer state between France and Germany by Francophone aristocrats in 1830. "A century ago, two-thirds of people in Brussels spoke Dutch and the rest spoke both languages," says Michel Francard, a linguist at the University of Louvain-la-Neuve. "Flemish leaders talk about stopping the 'ink blot of French' leaking into Flanders."...


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list