Belgians Limp Along, Hobbled by Old Language Barriers

Graffiti deface a bilingual signpost in Brussels. Belgium's premier-elect has until March 23 to form a government representing Walloons and Flemings.
Graffiti deface a bilingual signpost in Brussels. Belgium's premier-elect has until March 23 to form a government representing Walloons and Flemings. (By Mark Renders -- Getty Images)
By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

ZAVENTEM, Belgium -- In this Brussels suburb, where neat houses on twisting lanes stand a few streets away from NATO headquarters and the glassy towers of multinationals, Jean-Ren¿ Delval is packing up his home of 32 years and moving with his wife to Spain.

Delval, a French speaker from the country's south married to a Dutch speaker from the north, long ago grew accustomed to relying on his wife to fill out the strictly Dutch-only paperwork from the local mayor's office. Like many people raised in Wallonia, the country's French-speaking region, Delval's Dutch is at best rudimentary, a relic of weekly classes in school.

But in recent months, the linguistic obstacles have accumulated beyond the merely niggling. New regulations stipulate that public land in Delval's municipality can be sold only to people who speak Dutch or demonstrate a willingness to learn it. Teachers in his granddaughter's kindergarten are now forbidden to speak French on school premises. And one recent night, Delval said, police failed to respond to his French-language call asking them to investigate a strange noise outside his front door.

"I am a Belgian above all," said the 58-year-old retiree, who jokes that pretty soon passports will be needed to pass across the country's linguistic fault lines. "But I'm fed up with the state of this country."

Delval's frustration grows from a new flare-up of old tensions in this country, where French- and Dutch-speaking populations were thrown together by border redrawings after the Napoleonic wars.

Following national elections last June 10, the country limped along with no federal government for a record 195 days. Flemish Prime Minister-elect Yves Leterme failed three times to form a coalition that would represent the interests of both communities.

The impasse turned largely on Flemish demands for greater autonomy and precipitated a country-wide identity crisis. Many people began contemplating Belgium's dissolving into a very loose confederation or even splitting entirely, as the Czechs and Slovaks did in Czechoslovakia in their bloodless divorce of 1993.

The instability resonates beyond the country's borders. Political analysts worry that if Belgium, seat of the European Union and long a symbol of pragmatic unity between antagonistic communities, ceases to exist, Western Europe's many breakaway groups in Spain, Northern Ireland, France and northern Italy might be emboldened.

As secessionist movements go, this one has been relatively civil. At most, Flemish protesters last fall slashed street signs bearing names in French and Dutch and paraded with coffins symbolizing Belgium's demise. The issue continues to simmer, with near-daily debates in each of the country's six parliaments and animated discussion in the news media, business clubs and cafes.

Some of the talk is characteristically self-mocking. In September, one Belgian posted the country for sale on eBay as a "kingdom in three parts." The listing was pulled after attracting an offer of $13 million.

Even the Miss Belgium 2008 pageant, held in the Flemish city of Antwerp last month, degenerated into controversy when the newly crowned beauty drew boos from the crowd after she proved unable to answer a question in Dutch.

Other Belgians, though, have responded with a commitment to unity. On Nov. 18, 35,000 people marched through Brussels in a sea of red, black and yellow, the colors of the national flag. Hundreds of flags hung for weeks afterward from wrought-iron balconies and windows across the city.

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