Walloon woes spawn politics of hatred


in La Louviere

A pall of dejection hangs over the small town of La Louviere, in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. Broken glass clogs up the drains, and the cafe on the street corner is cleaning up after a burglary during the night.

All around are the signs of economic blight. The carcass of an ugly steel foundry casts a shadow over grimy red-brick terraced streets. Unemployment in the region is as high as 33 per cent and drugs are rife. Several shops in the town centre have closed.

In the immigrant reception centre, youths fill in forms in the search of jobs. Once proud of its multi-cultural harmony, La Louviere, which once invited waves of immigrants to work in the mines, has turned in on itself.

In response to the arrival last year of refugees from Zaire and Angola, La Louviere hasspawned its own branch of the racist National Front.

As Belgium goes to the polls on Sunday in the first electionunder the new federal system, Wallonia fears it is gradually being dumped, as it is cut off from the richer Flemish region to the north.

Pressure from the majority Flemish who make up 60 per cent of Belgians, brought about the linguistic and cultural division between the two communities in the 1970s and 1980s.

Last year came constitutional changes which mean that voters will elect their own separate regional governments, as well a national government.

The minority Walloons, who oppose separation, fear the momentum will not stop there. As the election campaign reached its climax, one issue dominated the debate: the proposal by Flemish hard-liners to "federalise" social security and health payments. Flemish tax payers are pouring their money into the pockets of unemployed and unwell Walloons, they say. They want the two communities to run separate benefits systems.

"This would be the beginning of the end. It would mean the end of any solidarity between our two communities. Belgium is too small to divide in two. We have helped them in the past. Now we are in difficulties they just want to throw us away," said Franca Rossi, an election campaigner. These French-speakers are not depending for their revival on national leaders but on the European Union, which recently named the La Louviere area as a priority region for aid.

The separatists could be strengthened in Sunday's elections by disarray among the Flemish Socialists, caused by a recent corruption scandal. The French-speaking Socialists may also be hit by disenchantment with the country's incumbent politicians. There are fears of a move to the right in Wallonia. "Here the right wing is just playing on people's fears and insecurities. People are afraid for their future and their children's future. They feel they have lost connection with political decision-makers. They want to hit out at something and the right has given them a cause," says Olga Zrihen, a Socialist candidate in La Louviere.

Walloon bitterness against the Flemish has been heightened during the election campaign. Until recently, many parts of Wallonia, benefiting from proximity to France and enjoying industrial success, were more prosperous than Flanders. However, Wallonia has been slow to switch to new industries and northern France has also seen a slump.

"For years we supported the Flemish," Ms Zrihen said." Now they don't want to do the same for us."