Bye bye Belgium? TV show leaves viewers confused and frightened

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On Wednesday night last week, Belgium's French-speaking public television network created a stir with a surprise 90-minute broadcast that began with a news flash that Flanders had declared independence and that the Belgian state was breaking apart. The broadcast was inspired by Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's "War of the Worlds," but touched upon a possibility less fanciful than an invasion from Mars. For the reality is that Belgium's days as a united nation may indeed be numbered.

Belgium only became a nation in 1830 and its union of Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north and French-speaking Walloons in south was never a love match. Instead, it was a marriage arranged by the great powers bent on creating a neutral buffer state.

Although Flemings always outnumbered French- speakers, Francophone Belgians dominated the new country economically, culturally and politically. French was the sole official language. The Francophone Belgian elite (which included the Flemish bourgeoisie) viewed the Flemish majority who could not speak proper French as backward peasants, suited to manual labor but little else. There was rampant social and economic discrimination.

A Flemish movement eventually emerged, pressing for language and cultural rights. In the 1930s, legislation established a regime of dual monolingualism based on a language frontier that divides the country today. In Flanders, Dutch is the only official language; in the Walloon region, French. Only Brussels is officially bilingual.

For most of Belgium's history, Wallonia was much richer than rural Flanders, and the country had a strong unitary parliamentary government that centralized power and authority. Neither is any longer true. Today the per capita gross domestic product of Flanders exceeds those of Germany, France and Britain, while that of the Walloon region is similar to the level of the poorer regions in France and Italy.

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