Sat, May 17, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Small-town Flanders taking lead in push for independence


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 town business and schooling take place in Flemish, true throughout Flanders, but children who cannot speak the language can be prohibited from holiday outings, like hikes and swimming classes.

“Belgie Barst!” says the graffiti on a 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 13 miles away and 15 minutes by train — from buying up this pretty landscape and changing the nature of the town.

Marc Mertens, 53, is the full-time secretary of the town, a professional manager who works under the elected but part-time town council. Sitting in a cafe near the old church he describes how his grandfather fought in World War I under officers who gave commands only in French.

“And then they would say in French: ‘For the Flemish, the same!”’ he said.

The phrase still rankles, and Mertens’ grandfather, a bilingual teacher, refused an officer’s commission on principle.

Mertens, a handsome, genial man, is worried about his town.

“Brussels is coming this way,” he said, explaining that the people here, having gained some autonomy, do not want to be overwhelmed again by another French-speaking ascendancy. More 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.”

Marleen Geerts, 48, a computer-science teacher of 13-year-olds, said teaching French-speakers took time.

­rial if they don’t understand it,” she said. “It’s a struggle.”

Her school provides language tutoring.

Some Flemish nationalists, like Johan Daelman, the leader of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang party here and a town councilman, want to keep French-speaking immigrants from Africa out, all in the name of keeping Liedekerke “unspoiled” — free of the crime and racial tensions of Brussels.

“We don’t want Liedekerke to become like a suburb of Paris,” Daelman said, describing the riots, car-burnings and attacks on the police by mostly African immigrants to France. “Big-city problems are coming here, and we want to stop it.”

This combination of national pride, rightist politics, language purity and racially tinged opposition to immigration is a classic formula these days in modern Europe, what critics call a kind of nonviolent fascism.

Flemish nationalists have another complaint. Flemish are 60 percent of Belgium’s population and inhabit the richest part, with much lower unemployment than the French-speaking Wallonia part.

“The French speakers used to rule us,” Daelman said.

Now, in the national government, he added, “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. Marino Keulen, the Flemish interior minister, vetoed it, although the town intends to proceed anyway.

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