A fierce row over suburban flight by French speakers into officially Flemish-speaking towns near Brussels is threatening to topple the Belgian Government.
A leading Flemish party has threatened to pull the plug on the coalition Government if no deal is reached by today – a move which could trigger fresh elections.
The dispute is ostensibly about the complex reorganisation of 54 communes which encircle Brussels but it has degenerated into a bitter turf war between the two language groups. Some local politicians have even been accused of promoting de facto apartheid after French-speakers were barred from buying property in Flemish towns.
"I will fight this until the bitter end," vowed Alexia Philippart de Foy, who had her offer on a house in Rhodes-Saint-Genèse turned down by Flemish authorities. "It cannot be the case that someone who is 100 per cent Belgian is barred from buying a house in her own country."
Ms Philippart de Foy, a businesswoman in her thirties, is one of the victims of this quintessentially Belgian dispute. The contested area, known as Brussel-Halle-Vilvoorde, has been a seeping wound ever since Belgium was clumsily carved up along language lines in 1963. It has already helped to topple the government four times in the past three years as politicians have locked horns over reforms to carve up the area into distinct Flemish and French voting and administrative districts.
Although the nitty gritty of these reforms is incomprehensible to most Belgians, it has stoked simmering tensions between the two communities. The picturesque, sleepy village of Gooik, just 20 kilometres south of the officially bilingual, but mostly French-speaking capital, is a classic example. Flemish residents there speak of an "invasion" of French-speakers which must be stopped.
"We want to preserve the Flemish character of this beautiful town," says Gooik's Mayor, Michel Doomst. "We don't want it to be overwhelmed by people who speak other languages."
The jovial Mr Doomst counts on the support of many of Gooik's 11,000 residents, many of who resent the influx of French-speakers. One elderly man walking his dog explained: "The Flemish here feel squeezed out because more and more people are coming down from Brussels to live here, because houses are cheaper and it's leafier. But they don't always want to adapt by learning Flemish."
Standing outside the Vrede or "peace" café, others spoke in harsher tones. "Why can't they just leave us alone? The French-speakers are so imperialistic, imposing their language everywhere," one woman fumed. "This here is a Flemish area that should be kept Flemish." One 19-year-old trainee teacher adds: "Most people of my generation don't really care but it doesn't go down at all well with my grandparents if they walk into their local bakery and find their new baker only speaks French."
Mayor Michel Doomst has now taken matters into his own hands and has imposed his own informal mechanism to deter French speakers from moving in. "We have a system of offer incentives in order to give precedence to people who have a clear link with this commune. And yes, that means Flemish people." Even residents who put their houses on the market are "encouraged" to sell to Flemish people, he says, though he refuses to spell out what this encouragement might entail.
Down the road in Flemish Rhodes-Saint-Genèse, the deterrents are more formal. Authorities have imposed a decree called Wonen in eigen streek (Live in your own area) which sets out clear conditions for would-be property buyers.
French-speaking politicians also have their own administrative ammunition to hand in this tug-of-war, and there seems to be little hope of the issue being resolved. Yesterday parties from both sides met for marathon talks at a secret location to discuss a deal put forward by Jean-Luc Dehaene, a former prime minister who has been appointed to find a way out of the impasse.
Belgium's 11 million people have somehow learned to live with the strong undercurrent of political tension that nearly split the country apart three years ago. One French-speaking man said: "It's very sad that the politicians have let it get this far."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies