War of words, fear, and farce in Flanders

Katherine Butler reports on tension around Brussels, where French- speakers are accusing the Flemish of 'ethnic cleansing'

IT MIGHT have been Kosovo. Terrified children were forced at gunpoint out of a bus, armed men in uniform were shouting at the drivers to go back over the frontier to their own villages, and anguished mothers wept at the side of the road.

But this was Ronse, a small town in Belgium, early in the morning on the first day of the autumn term. Flemish police had intercepted 50 mentally handicapped children and ordered them out of their school bus. Their crime? Belonging to the French-speaking minority in a Flemish village, and attempting to cross the country's linguistic border from Walloon country in "Francophone" buses. They had been trying to reach their special school, which happened to be on French-speaking territory.

Many felt the lamentable incident marked a new low even by the standards of Belgium's decades-old and sometimes farcical linguistic feud.

"The frontier of ridicule" thundered the headline in La Derniere Heure, a Brussels newspaper. A few days later, the hardline Flemish-language warriors and their political masters resumed hostilities at a public library in Sint-Genesius-Rode, (Rhode-Saint-Genese in French), one of six Flemish "facility communes" or municipalities on the periphery of Brussels. The Flemish regional government cancelled the public subsidy for French-language books. Voluntary donations would be required to keep the library open, said the French-speaking mayor, Myriam Delacroix-Rolin.

"It's not so much the money people are upset about, but the harassment and the psychological impact - the attack this represents on Francophone culture," she added.

In 1962, when the language frontier was drawn through the map of Belgium, Sint-Genesius-Rode fell within Flanders. But migration from Brussels meant that a small majority of the population is now French-speaking, or would choose French above Flemish for official business.

Since 1963 municipal business in all the facility communes must be conducted in Flemish, but French-speakers have had an automatic right to services in their own language. Getting married at the town hall, applying for a dog licence, asking permission to build an extension on your house or filing your local tax returns could all be done in French.

Then earlier this year Leo Peeters, interior minister of the Flemish Region, revoked these rights. Suddenly, anyone wanting an official form in French must make a separate request on each occasion, then wait for authorisation.

Mayors of the six municipalities have ignored the Peeters order saying it is unconstitutional and unworkable. The result is a policy of administrative obstruction, a system Mrs Delacroix-Rolin calls "cleansing" Flanders. "It's a very clear strategy designed to make French-speakers and foreigners think that this is a commune from hell, where nothing works, so they will move out and leave it to the Flemish".

Potholes in the municipalities are bigger than anywhere else in Belgium, because road-mending budgets are blocked. In Sint-Genesius-Rode the post of police commissioner has been vacant for months, but every time Mrs Delacroix-Rolin fills in the form to appoint a new one, the regional government refuses it on a technicality. Teachers have had contracts terminated for no apparent reason, and under new planning laws, Flemish-speakers will be entitled to purchase land for house-building at cheaper interest rates than their French-speaking neighbours.

Understanding between the two communities, once fairly good, has evaporated. The mayors say French-speakers who might have been happy to attend Flemish cultural events, or even learn the language, have become more aggressive.

Weekly council meetings at Rode's town hall are regularly drowned by chanting protesters, and the French parts of bilingual signs on public buildings have been removed.

Flemish shopkeepers, once happy to chat to customers in French, or English, have had anonymous phone calls warning them to stick to "Vlaams". Those who refuse find their shopfronts daubed "Foreigners out". On the town hall at Wemmel, a western municipality , the graffiti reads "Burgeroorlog" or "War of the People".

The recent growth in provocation is linked to Flemish pressure for constitutional reform, and EU legislation that will force Belgium to extend voting rights to foreigners. The Flemish fear that foreigners - 30 per cent of the Brussels population - will vote for French-speaking candidates, upsetting the delicate balance of power in the capital and its periphery. On Friday MPs from the 40-nation Council of Europe are expected to vote in Strasbourg on a resolution condemning human rights violations against the French- speaking minority on the periphery of Brussels.

A Swiss parliamentarian, Dumeni Columberg, from the European human rights commission, urges withdrawal of the Peeters edict. But he also said French- speakers must try to learn Flemish and make more of an effort to integrate.

But for Mrs Delacroix-Rolin, integration is not an option. "Many of us are bilingual," she said. "Plenty of Francophones have learned as much Flemish as they need, but that will never be enough for the extremists. They will not be happy until they have achieved complete assimilation. It is very sad."

The Flemish regional president, Luc van den Brande, suspected of being the author of the "pure Flanders" policy, has told the Council of Europe: "Flanders is doing so much better economically than the rest of Belgium, and the only answer people on the French-speaking side can come up with is to sully our reputation abroad."

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