Even traffic lights are an issue in the Belgian language dispute

A file photo of a ripped Belgian flag at the Cinquantenaire monument in Brussels.

By Jeroen van der Kris in Kraainem

The bilingual electoral district that encompasses the, mainly French-speaking, capital and the Flemish villages surrounding it caused the collapse of the Belgian government. How do people living there feel?

Belgian flags were flying from buildings in Kraainem, one of the municipalities on the edge of Brussels. French-speaking residents here had hoisted them to express their concern over the future of their country. Their call for unity seems an odd one at a time when politicians on both sides of the language divide are fighting in the streets. The offices of the national government that fell last month are just 20 minutes away from here, but they might as well be located on another planet. People in this green and affluent town of 13,000 say there are no tensions between the Dutch and French-speaking population. They often drink a glass of wine with their neighbours, regardless of the language they speak.

But at the political level, emotions run high in Kraainem, part of the multilingual electoral district surrounding Brussels. Kraainem is part of Flanders, but most of its residents speak French. The people here voted in a French-speaking mayor in 2006, but the Flemish government has been stalling his official appointment since. The mayor had sent out letters in French prior to the election, something he wasn't allowed to do, according to Flemish politicians.

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Four police officers guarded the entrance of the town hall during meetings of the local council last week. Their presence is standard procedure, as Flemish nationalists have disrupted the meetings in the past. Five Flemish council members sat on one end of the hall, their 18 French-speaking counterparts opposite them. All were required to speak Dutch during meetings in this municipality, but not everybody was able to.

Accusations of arrogance

The meeting dealt with a subsidy request for an Indian development project. "We don't object," a Flemish member said. "But the application was written in French. We at least need a Dutch copy." A French-speaking city executive explained the proposal had been written by students from Kraainem. After some insistence from the Dutch-speaking side she promised she would have the letter translated by civil servants.

A council member questioned this choice. "Would it be too much to ask the student to write it themselves? You are going against article 30 in the constitution here. If this happens, we will have to turn to the provincial authorities." A fellow Flemish member agreed, calling the executive's attitude arrogant.

"And you are not arrogant," she countered sarcastically.

A new eruption followed as the meeting neared its end. A French-speaking council member submitted a motion asking the government to have the municipality of Kraainem merge with the bilingual capital. The five Flemish members got up and marched out of the hall. The motion was accepted by the remaining council members with applause.

After the meeting, members of both sides were chatting on the front steps. They gave an explanation for the show that had taken place inside: there had been two TV cameras present. Mayor Arnold d’Oreye de Lantremange pointed to a van of the French TV station RTBF. "That B is for Belgium," he said. "But the V in VRT is for Vlaams (Flemish)."

'Nibbling' at Frenchspeakers' rights

The next day, Dominique Houtart (75), a former banker and one of the French-speaking council members was keen to explain the differences between French speakers and the Flemish. During a ride around the town, he pointed to a green area. "My family has owned this land since 1800. So don't let the Flemish fool you into thinking we are new here," he said.

The language border between Flanders and Wallonia was drawn in 1962. People in the Dutch-speaking north can only vote for politicians from Flemish parties. Residents of the southern part of the country only have Walloon parties. But the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district is the exception to this rule. People living in the 35 Flemish municipalities surrounding Brussels can vote for parties from both sides in the bilingual capital.

Kraainem is a special municipality in a special area. Frenchspeakers have a few more rights - 'facilities' - here than in other Flemish towns, but Flemish politicians are trying to tinker with them, said Houtart. He calls it grignotage, nibbling. "They are like squirrels."

"Before, you only had to make a single request to file your taxes in French. Nowadays, you have to renew the request every single year. Organisations can receive millions in subsidies from the Flemish government if they focus on their Flemish character. French-speaking organisations can only get subsidies from the municipality. We are allowed to have a French school here, but now the Flemish government wants to inspect it," Houtart said.

Ban on referenda

"I think it is fairly simple: why don't we hold a referendum about where Kraainem belongs?" he proposed. "But the Flemish have put it in the constitutions that no referenda can be held on subjects regarding the language problem."

In Kraainem, even the poles of the traffic lights are a matter of dissent. From Houtart's car, one could see the poles were striped red and white, as they are in Brussels. Anywhere else in Flanders, the poles are black and yellow. The official explanation is easier visibility, but black and yellow also happen to be the colours of the Flemish flag. Houtart laughed at the observation. "A Flemish council member has already raised this issue."

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