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NYT: The Language Divide, Writ Small, in Belgian Town

Thursday, July 15, 2010

WEMMEL, Belgium — Most of the families living in this well-to-do community on the outskirts of Brussels are French-speaking. But the law for this region of Belgium says that all official town business must be conducted in Flemish.

That means that police reports must be written in Flemish. Voting materials must be issued in Flemish. Seventy-five percent of the books and DVDs purchased for the library must be, yes, in Flemish.

When the mayor of Wemmel, Christian Andries, presides over a town council meeting he is not allowed to utter a single French word, even to translate, or the business at hand may be annulled.

“Of course,” he said recently, with a sigh. “It is absurd.”

Belgium is without a government — again. And this picturesque bedroom community with a cobblestone square offers a clear enough picture of why. Europe as a whole may be busy papering over its differences, burying cultural disparities and centuries of feuding. But not Belgium. It seems headed the other way.

It was, in fact, a dispute over voting rights for French speakers in Wemmel and a cluster of similar villages that brought down Belgium’s last government. Unable to resolve the issue after more than three years of trying, Prime Minister Yves Leterme threw in the towel (for the third time) and the king finally accepted his resignation in April.

In the wake of last month’s elections, talks have begun in hopes of forging a coalition that can lead Belgium. But even the optimists do not expect a new government for months to come.

After the country’s 2007 election it took the Belgians about nine months to form a government. Some analysts say that the main parties are even more split this time, and some wonder whether they may even be witnessing the beginning of the end of Belgium.

“It is hard to know where this will go,” said Lieven De Winter, a professor of politics at the Université Catholique de Louvain, though like many others he believes breaking up the country would be so complicated as to be impossible, largely because neither side would give up Brussels, the capital.

For Mr. Andries, this state of affairs comes as no surprise. A friendly man of Flemish descent, he has been juggling the tensions between the two halves of Belgium for more than a decade, running a town that is technically on the Flemish-speaking side of the country, but has become home to many French speakers looking for trees and backyards not far from Brussels.

Mr. Andries’s house was covered in protest placards once because he was accused of forcing his librarian to write letters in French to French theaters inquiring about materials that might be available for the library. Not allowed. He should have sent the letters in Flemish.

When he invited a Congolese singer, whose mother tongue is French, to perform in Wemmel, there were so many complaints and threats that Mr. Andries said he had to ask for police assistance.

Last year, he was heavily criticized in local Flemish papers for putting new windows in the school for French-speaking Belgians before replacing those in the Flemish school.

“There are 600 children in the French school and only 400 in the Flemish school,” he said. “It seemed like the logical place to start.”

But Mr. Andries’s problems pale compared to three other mayors in this Flemish region, called the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde, or BHV. They were elected more than four years ago but have never been officially installed. The issue? They sent voting information, written in French, to the French voters in their communities. In one of the towns, Linkebeek, some 80 percent of the 4,700 inhabitants are French-speaking.

“It is hard to believe,” said Damien Thierry, who won the election. “Belgium is an astonishing place right now.”

The ethno-linguistic fault line that runs through this country could hardly be more pronounced. The country is really a federation made up of three parts. Flanders in the north. French-speaking Wallonia in the South and Brussels, officially bilingual.

The French and the Flemish each have their own political parties, their own newspapers and their own television channels, which many experts blame for the current state of affairs.

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