Language Tosses Belgium From Crisis to Crisis

AP, July 12, 2008

At the National Botanical Gardens, office windows are cracked, doors are broken and two greenhouses have collapsed in recent years.

The reason for the decrepitude is that the gardens lie in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, and French-speaking lawmakers won’t approve the money for improvements.

It’s just one of many signs that Belgium’s perennial language time bomb is again approaching critical mass. It has plunged the country into a constitutional crisis that makes some wonder if Belgium can—or should—survive in its present rancorous jigsaw-puzzle shape.

Authorities in the Flemish towns of Zaventem and Vilvoorde limit social housing to Dutch-speakers; nearby Overijse encourages citizens to denounce shopkeepers who advertise in languages other than Dutch, and the mayor has sent letters to citizens asking them to take down signs in English or French.

The local council in Liedekerke drew widespread criticism for suggesting only Dutch-speaking kids could use municipal playgrounds.

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In the 1960s, when Belgium was cut up into separate language regions—leaving only Brussels officially bilingual—French-speakers in Linkebeek and five other Flemish towns outside the capital received special rights to use French in dealing with their local councils.

These towns have since become bedroom suburbs for French-speakers who work in Brussels, and Flemish authorities are fighting back by demanding that the towns conduct official business in Dutch only.

Linkebeek’s Thiery and two other French-speaking mayors have refused to comply. Flemish authorities have blocked their nomination even though they were legally elected, leaving the local councils in legal limbo.

“The Flemish say ‘you are on our territory, so you have no say,’” complains Thiery. “The Flemish politicians have become more and more intolerant.”

At its heart, the quarrel is economic. Flanders is richer than French-speaking Wallonia, and resents its taxes going toward subsidizing a territory that is Belgium’s rust belt with 15 percent unemployment, triple the rate in Flanders.

At the same time, they believe the influx of French-speaking commuters from Brussels is eroding their cultural heritage.

French-speakers say enough powers have been devolved, and accuse the Flemish of trying to cut Wallonia loose.

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