Fri, Feb 24, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Affair reveals Belgium's underlying tensions

THE GUARDIAN , BRUSSELS

If a man in his mid-40s abandons his wife for a woman seven years his junior, he can probably expect the odd jibe about the weakness of men. But only in Belgium, as Hendrik Daems is finding out to his cost, can such a love story turn into a political crisis that raises questions about the country's future.

Daems, a leading figure in the governing Liberal party, was cast into oblivion after he moved in with his pregnant lover, Sophie Pecriaux, who hails from the other side of the country's linguistic divide.

Daems, 46, is one of the most prominent politicians from Flanders, the northern, Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. Pecriaux, 39, a member of the Francophone Socialist party, comes from Wallonia, the southern, French-speaking part.

The couple met and fell in love in Belgium's federal parliament, one of the few forums where the Flemish and Walloons meet.

Daems completed his fall from grace last week, a month after details of the affair were leaked, when he resigned as parliamentary leader of the Flemish Liberal Group (VLD), the party of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

His resignation came as Belgian and French newspapers lapped up the affair.

"I wasn't expecting such attention," said Daems whose affair astonished political friends who remember him as a fervent supporter of the Flemish cause.

Pecriaux is equally surprised by the furor.

"We are living a true love story and the child which will be born from our union is a common project," she told Liberation. "He is a man, I am a woman, he is Belgian, as am I. Isn't that normal?"

Not in Belgium, it seems, where the Flemish and the Walloons are barely on speaking terms. The two regions, whose divisions date back to the 3rd century when Germanic Franks colonized the north and the Romanised Celts (or Wala) took the lands to the south, seem to be on the permanent brink of divorce.

An economic reversal of fortunes, with the former backwater of Flanders surging ahead of the old powerhouse of Wallonia, is also played out in the highly sensitive area of language.

Until the middle of the last century French was spoken by the Belgian elite, which explains why Brussels is a predominantly Francophone city even though it is marooned in Flanders.

Now a majority of Belgians speak Flemish after nationalists started agitating in the late 19th century for their tongue to be given equal status to French.

The language divide and sharp economic differences, combined with the arrival of large numbers of Muslims in the past 30 years, has created a toxic cocktail which the far right Vlaams Belang party in Flanders is exploiting to demand independence.

The success of Vlaams Belang, which attracts about a quarter of the vote in Flanders, has unsettled mainstream parties which have set up a cordon sanitaire around the extremists.

The Belgian monarch, King Albert II, recently turned on Vlaams Belang and other separatists.

"Tensions between regions occur in many European countries. These unequal situations, involving transfers between regions, are common in Europe," he said.

"Splits and separations are generally costly for all sides whether they are rich or poor," the king said.

While the marriage between Flanders and Wallonia may be loveless, the sight of proverbial pots and pans being hurled across the language divide seems to convince most sides to back away from calling in the divorce lawyers.

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