Belgium: A nation divided

Has Belgium had its frites?
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The Independent Online

We are zipping down suburban lanes, turning right and left, dodging from prosperous village to prosperous village. The houses are solid without being grand; tidy but somehow higgledy-piggledy; ordinary, with a touch of the surreal. They could only be Belgian.

The people on the streets are neither aggressively neat, like the Dutch, nor self-consciously elegant, like the French. They are something in between. They are, to my biased but approving eyes, triumphantly and typically Belgian.

In the first village, the road signs are in Dutch (or in English). In the next, the signs are in French (or in English). "Avenue" becomes "laan", "rue" becomes "straat", and a "dviation" becomes a "wegomlegging". Belgium is full of dviations and wegomleggings.

The houses look the same. The people look the same. Other than the language, nothing much changes when you criss-cross the linguistic frontier. One thing, however, blatantly changes.

In the French-speaking villages, every second house has a red, yellow and black tricolour flag draped from a window or flying from its roof. The householders are making a self-conscious political statement: "We are Belgians and we want to remain Belgians."

When we enter an officially Dutch-speaking village, the Belgian tricolours almost vanish. The Flemish householders are equally self-consciously not proclaiming: "We are Belgians and we want to remain Belgians."

Does that mean they don't consider themselves to be Belgian or not as Belgian as their French-speaking neighbours? Nothing in Belgium is that simple. Like all flat countries, the landscape changes with every trick of the light.

I am driving along with Marie-Claire Gillard, a local councillor and my distant relative by marriage. She is, to be precise, my wife's brother's wife's sister. You could hardly imagine anyone more completely Belgian than Marie-Claire, 53. She was brought up in a French-speaking family in a Flemish city, Antwerp. She went to a French-speaking school until it was closed by political edict. She continued her education in Dutch.

For 27 years, she has lived in the officially Dutch-speaking town of Hoeilaart, which sits, like a nut in the jaws of a nut-cracker, between "bilingual" but mostly French-speaking Brussels to the north and French-speaking Wallonia to the south.

Marie-Claire's house is almost on the east-west frontier that officially divides the two main linguistic communities in Belgium. In Belgium, all local politics has a national dimension. This explains why there are no mains drains in Marie-Claire's pretty, suburban street. The Walloon, French-speaking commune that starts 300 metres down the hill to the south refuses to allow "Flemish" sewage to drain through its territory.

Bienvenue en Belgique; Onthaal aan België; Welcome to Belgium.


For 15 years, Marie-Claire, who is bilingual but speaks French at home, has been a councillor in Hoeilaart for the Dutch-speaking liberal party, the Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten (VLD). She has four (bilingual) children.

"After 27 years, more than half that time as a local councillor, I know that I am, and will always be considered, a 'vrumde' outsider or foreigner because people know that I speak French at home," Marie-Claire says.

"On one occasion, at a charitable event, I spoke in French to my daughter, to tell her to go home because she was sick. The organiser charged up to me, in a rage, shouting, 'Here, we speak only Flemish.' That kind of thing maddens me. The Flemish have a perfect right to protect their language and culture. I always speak Flemish to Flemish people in Flanders, and in my official capacity. But, equally, I have a right to speak French to my daughter."

Belgium is going through one of its periodic political crises, or linguistic/cultural nervous breakdowns. Arguably, this one is more serious than any so far. A general election was held six months ago, but no agreement has been reached on a new federal government. Some people predict that Belgium if not through this crisis, then the next is doomed to split into two parts (or more) after 177 years of uneasy cohabitation between French and Dutch, or "Flemish", speakers. Some commentators say Belgium is already, in effect, divided; so much everyday administration in education, commerce, culture, agriculture has been transferred to the three regional governments (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) that the national government hardly matters.

But others say talk of a split is exaggerated, and that this quarrel is mostly driven by selfish political ambitions and the rise of a short-sighted, unstatesmanlike generation of politicians on both sides of the language divide. Opinion polls suggest that, at the grass roots, there is no real popular hunger to split Belgium, certainly not in Wallonia or Brussels, and probably not in Flanders.

I spent a day with Marie-Claire to try to understand the nature of the crisis. Her town, Hoeilaart, is part of an archipelago of officially Dutch-speaking communes in the outer Brussels conurbation, which have been progressively invaded by wealthy French-speakers fleeing the capital for a suburban idyll. The political rights of French speakers in these communes, and Flemish fears of being swamped, are among the trickiest issues at the heart of the present crisis.

But first, a little history: Belgian, and personal. My family connection with Belgium is stronger than my tenuous but friendly link, through two marriages, with Marie-Claire. My mother was Belgian. My grandmother Catherine Thonard was Walloon. My grandfather Jan Desmet was Flemish and a minor Belgian war-hero, imprisoned for working against the German occupiers during the First World War.

My mother, though half Flemish, could not speak a word of Dutch. She was brought up in Brussels regarding her father's first language as a peasant tongue that would "get you nowhere in the world". This attitude, typical of Belgian francophones who grew up before the war (and some born later) explains something of the mistrust, even contempt, that exists between the country's six million Flemings and 3.5 million French-speakers. (There are also 70,000 German-speakers.)

For the first century or more of its existence, Belgium was controlled socially and politically by a French-speaking elite. It was dominated economically by the heavy industries of Wallonia. Flanders, outside its great medieval ports and cities of Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and Ypres, was agricultural and poor. There was no Flemish university until 1930. The Belgian constitution was first translated into Dutch in 1967.

Little by little, the demographic and economic weight of Flanders has shifted the political balance of power to the north. As the Walloon steel, coal and textile industries declined or died, modern hi-tech and petrochemical industries flourished in Flanders or around Brussels. Wallonia now has double the unemployment rate of Flanders, and 60 per cent of its GDP per head.

As we drove through the lanes of Brabant, Marie-Claire talked of the geological layers of resentment that divide Flemings and Walloons. First, there is the language question and the historic Flemish fear of francophone contempt for their language and culture. Second, there is the Flemish fear that their new-found prosperity may be dragged down by the poor economic performance and alleged laziness of the Walloons.

Third, there is a sharp difference in political culture. (All Belgian parties split along linguistic lines 40 years ago.) The Flemings tend to vote to the right. A fringe is drawn to the xenophobic Flemish nationalist ultra-right. The Walloons have long been dominated politically by one of the most corrupt and unreconstructed Socialist parties in Europe.

"There is some truth to the stereotypes," Marie-Claire says. "The Flemish live to work. The Walloons work to live. The Flemish think of the francophones as lazy socialists who milk subsidies, and the Walloons think of the Flemish as dour, money-mad xenophobes.

"In reality, Wallonia is beginning to recover economically. Some of the new Flemish industries are beginning to show their age. The left is losing its grip over Wallonia. The far right in Flanders is only a fringe.

"The problem is that the two communities hardly talk to each other. We live back-to-back lives."


As we drive, Marie-Claire points out local political landmarks. There is the overcrowded Catholic primary school that has started refusing to take children who speak French at home. There is the state school, which takes all children, as legally it must. The headmistress has been accused by some Flemings of being a "traitress".

There is the tennis club that turns away francophones, even if they can speak Dutch. There is the soccer club for youngsters that insists its coaches speak Dutch (although most available coaches aren't even Belgian). There is the restaurant, now closed, once owned by a francophone who insisted on advertising in French. A graffiti campaign drove him out of business.

At a caf in Hoeilaart, we meet the mayor, Tim Vandenput, 36, who belongs to the same Flemish liberal party as Marie-Claire. He dismisses suggestions that this crisis is more acute than previous ones. "Belgium will not split, not for 30 years in any case. The great majority of Flemings don't want Belgium to disappear, but they do want a Belgium that can solve their problems, whether it is pensions or jobs or crime or transport. The problem is that those are very difficult stories to tell if you are a politician. The language divide Flemings versus Walloons is always an easy story to tell."

The real problem, the mayor says, is that a generation of politicians is hungry for power but not really interested in or steeped in national politics. "The creation of regional parliaments and governments means that young people are now formed by regional, not national, politics. We are no longer breeding the kind of Belgian statesmen of the past Leo Tindemans or Wilfried Martens or Jean-Luc Dehaene [all former Flemish Christian Democrat prime ministers] who commanded respect across both communities.

"The politicians coming through now are defined by their own regional or community politics. They don't understand the issues that effect the other community. Worse, they hardly know each other and don't trust each other."

All the same, Vandenput, an ally of the last (and still caretaker) prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, believes that some kind of temporary settlement will soon be found. Verhofstadt, although regarded in Flanders as the loser of the June elections, is seeking ways to form a grand coalition of both right and left, Flemings and French-speakers, to run the country for a couple of years while constitutional changes are discussed.

There are some reasons to be optimistic. The two liberal parties, Flemish and francophone, plan to hold a joint conference to draw up a programme for the future. But the country is held together by its problems as much as by common interests; and what about Brussels, 90 per cent francophone but surrounded by Flemish territory?

Marie-Claire says the long-term survival of Belgium could be assured by two things: obliging all children to learn both languages from nursery age; and restoring the credibility of national government by clawing some power back from the regions.

The problem is that any settlement will probably have to accommodate the demands of Flemish parties for more power for the regional governments. After repeated crises and compromises, Belgian politics is like a tangle of rope; sort out one tangle, and you create another. Eventually you are tempted, in desperation, to reach for the scissors. But where do you start to cut?