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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk