As French-speakers spread north in Belgium, Flemish hear a threat
If Belgium vanishes one day, it will be because of little towns like this one, where Flemish politicians are riding a new wave of nationalism and pushing for an independent state. Liedekerke has only 12,000 inhabitants, but its elected council has caused a stir by insisting on the “Flemish nature” of the town. Not only must all city business and schooling take place in Flemish, true throughout Flanders, but children who cannot speak the language can be prohibited from taking part in holiday outings, like hikes and swimming classes.
“België barst!” says the graffiti on the bridge near the train station, or “Belgium bursts,” the cry of the nationalists who want an independent Flanders. But here they also want to keep the rich, French-speakers from Brussels – only 21 kilometers, or 13 miles, away, and 15 minutes by train – from buying up this pretty landscape and changing the nature of the village. Marc Mertens, 53, is the full-time secretary of the town, a professional manager who works under the elected, but part-time village council. Sitting in a café near the old church – Liedekerke is thought to mean “church on the little hill” – he describes how his grandfather fought in World War I under officers who only gave commands in French.
“And then they would say in French: ‘For the Flemish, the same!’ ” he said.
The phrase still rankles, and Mertens’s grandfather, a bilingual teacher, refused an officer’s commission on principle.
Mertens is worried about his village.
“Brussels is coming this way,” he said, explaining that the people here, having gained autonomy, do not want to be overwhelmed again by another French-speaking ascendancy. More of schoolchildren, taught in Flemish, have French-speaking parents.
“When I was young I never heard a foreign language here,” he said. “Now every day I meet people speaking French.”
There are days “when I think I’m not in my village any more,” he added.
Marleen Geerts, 48, a computer-science teacher of 13-year-olds, says teaching French-speakers takes time.
“You can’t go on with the material if they don’t understand it,” she said. “It’s a struggle.”
But her school provides Dutch tutoring if necessary. Some Flemish nationalists, like Johan Daelman, the head of the far-right, anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang party here and a village councilman, want to keep French-speaking immigrants from Africa out of town, too – all in the name of keeping Liedekerke “unspoiled,” meaning free of the crime and racial tensions of nearby Brussels.”We don’t want Liedekerke to become like a suburb of Paris,” Daelman said, describing the riots, car burnings and attacks on police by mostly African immigrants to France. “Big city problems are coming here, and we want to stop it.”
Daelman is more explicit than others in describing part of the effort to restrict school outings to Flemish-speakers.”Part of the black community here invited relatives and friends with children from Brussels to play,” he said. “There were too many, and more than half didn’t understand Dutch.”
This combination of national pride, rightist politics, language purity and racially tinged opposition to big-city mores and immigration is a classic formula these days in modern Europe, a kind of nonviolent fascism. Flemish nationalists have another complaint. Flemish are 60 percent of Belgium’s population, and for many years now also the richest part, with much lower unemployment than Wallonia, which has been slow to convert its older industries despite subsidies.
“The French-speakers used to rule us, ” Daelman said. “It’s not the principle of one-man, one-vote, and every problem in Belgium now becomes a problem of the communities. It’s a surrealistic spectacle, and the best answer is to divide the country. “Liedekerke’s effort to restrict school outings by language embarrassed both the federal and Flanders government, both of which sit in Brussels. Marino Keulen, the Flemish interior minister, annulled the decision. “It’s the wrong vision and method,” Keulen said in an interview in Brussels. “I canceled it immediately. They can’t do it by a language test.”
He, too, said the problem was the popularity of the Liedekerke program with Brussels residents “who want to use the facilities of Flanders, which are of a high quality. “Other ways to restrict the program, using fees and residency qualifications, seem fine – and less embarrassing. But Keulen, too, is annoyed by the subsidies to Wallonia, given that Flanders has less than 6 percent unemployment compared to 16 percent and produces 81 percent of Belgium’s exports. He says he supports a federal state, but even his chief of staff, Steven Vansteenkiste, complains about a French-speaking veto. “We are a majority and very often we can’t do what we want, even in our own region, because the French minority blocks us,” Vansteenkiste said. “We see a lot of money going from the north to the south, but they’re lagging even further behind us. They are really afraid we want to leave and drop them.”
Little Liedekerke is important nationally, too, because it is part of the electoral and juridical district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, known as BHV, that has been at the heart of the long inability to form a stable Belgian federal government. Flemish legislators want to divide the district, separating the largely French-speaking Brussels, which has special bilingual status in Flanders as the federal capital, from the other two Flemish areas. That would stop French-speaking politicians from seeking votes in Flemish areas and effectively end special bilingual rights for about 70,000 French-speakers living in Flanders, but outside Brussels.
But Wallonian legislators are blocking the changes, fearing that their power is eroding, that the Flemish are doing some legal ethnic cleansing and that a divided Belgium will end the subsidies that flow south from richer Flanders. Yves Leterme, the Flemish Christian Democrat who is federal prime minister, promised constitutional changes that would enhance regional autonomy. It took him nearly 150 days to form a government, but its fate is still in question, saved only by an agreement early Friday morning to postpone the BHV imbroglio once again, until at least mid-July.
In Liedekerke, Mertens finds numerous hypocrisies in the fight over children’s outings. The Flanders sports association, Bloso, controlled by the Flanders government, runs sports activities and camps. But Bloso also says that children who do not speak or understand Flemish can be sent home without a refund, Mertens said. “Keulen says we’re against the law, but this Flemish institution can do it,” he said, “and we’ve written to them about it. “So Liedekerke intends to stick to its guns, but also to the letter of the law. It will soon vote on an amendment that says that its outings program “has a Dutch character,” Mertens said.
“And instead of saying that the monitor can refuse kids who don’t understand Flemish, we will write that the monitor can refuse children who ‘disturb’ the outings,” he said Of course, Mertens said, smiling, “one can understand ‘disturb’ in different ways. “To help keep out “relatives” and “friends” who live in Brussels, Liedekerke will charge them three times as much as residents. Mertens expects his two daughters, 12 and 13, to live in an independent Flanders, and thinks he may, too. “I’m convinced Belgium can’t last,” he said. The fight over BHV “will be seen as the start of the war between the Flemish and the French-speakers,” he said. “The Flemish people are becoming more self-aware and more decisive. We’ve been ruled long enough by the French people, and our time has come. It may take 10, 20 or 30 years. But this Belgium will become superfluous.”