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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)

So for now Belgium remains one, officially at least -- Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, with the officially bilingual and thriving cosmopolitan capital, Brussels, in the middle. But Dutch and French speakers live largely separate lives, governed by parallel officialdoms. They watch separate television stations, attend distinct schools and universities and vote for Dutch and French wings of the same political parties.

Meanwhile, a caretaker government runs day-to-day affairs; Leterme has been given until March 23 to form a coalition.

But politicians are skeptical that the underlying points of disagreement can be addressed in the remaining two months. "We are two opinions, two peoples, with two different democracies, really," said Geert Bourgeois, the Flemish minister of administrative affairs and founder of the separatist New Flemish Alliance. "Our visions are different, and our problems are different."

Chief among Flemish grievances is the economy. Flemings resent the southward transfer of massive subsidies from the prosperous north. They also disagree with Wallonia's more socialized, welfare-model approach. Once the coal and steel powerhouse of the country, the French-speaking zone now has approximately double the unemployment of the north.

Many Flemings see the safeguarding of Flemish culture and language as a reversal of a historic injustice. French was the language of public official life until the 1960s, when the country settled on its current system of linguistic zones.

But that delicate system is being tested as Brussels grows and its French-speaking population fans out into Flemish zones. Peter Dejaeghar, spokesman for the Flemish minister responsible for language decrees, sees in this population spread an "imperial" tendency to "Gallicize" Flanders.

Flemings must stand their ground, said Francis Vermeiren, mayor of Zaventem. "If I went into the Washington, D.C., town hall and asked for my ID card in Dutch, wouldn't they look at me as if I were from the moon?" he said. "It's the same here. We respect each culture . . . but we ask for respect in return. Flemish culture must be defended." His town, he notes, is only about six miles from Wallonia.

Though most of the separatist sentiment comes from Flanders, Flemings who live in Wallonia sometimes also feel friction from authorities. One of the few Dutch-speaking schools there had to turn to Flemish authorities after the Walloon government declined to fund it, on the grounds that it had too few Flemish students, said Tom Vandermeulen, its principal.

For many, though, who see themselves as Belgians rather than Walloons or Flemings, the language barriers between places that are often fractional distances apart can border on the absurd.

Rachida Hadgit, 44, a French-speaking house cleaner, recently moved from Brussels to a Flemish suburb five minutes away, where she could afford a house rather than a cramped apartment.

But her Dutch, she said, was too scanty to deal with the police or with the bureaucrats in the town hall, who sometimes answer her when she speaks French and sometimes don't. The headache was enough, she said, to lead her to scale back her workload for six months and enroll in three hours of Dutch classes a week.

"I felt like my parents" -- immigrants from Algeria, she said -- "a stranger in my own country, unable to read and write."

In three of the six municipalities of Flanders around Brussels that officially permit use of both languages, mayors who were elected in October 2006 have been denied official acceptance by the Flemish parliament because they circulated electoral notices in French to their French-majority constituencies. The mayors contend this violates the government's own rules.

"Ideally, Belgium should become completely bilingual," said Hadelin del Marmol, 48, a consultant and reserve officer in the army, who proudly cites two generations of relatives who fought and died for Belgium. "But what I'm saying is utterly utopian. Flemings are afraid that their culture will disappear." And Walloons, he added, haven't much desire to learn a language they can't use outside the country or the Netherlands.

Marmol, a Walloon by birth, recently moved to the picturesque Flemish town of Overijse outside Brussels after his wife inherited property there. Now he fumes over the town's lack of a French-speaking school, the dearth of French books in the public library and the lack of French-speaking officials in the town's sports organizations.

"We have in common the long road of history we've traveled together," he said. "And one of the country's great strengths is its multiculturalism. But that's a richness we're in danger of losing."

"I'm a Belgian," he added. "But I'm not a Belgian at any price."

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