Sun, Aug 20, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Flanders PM sparks linguistic storm


A top Flemish politician has sparked a bitter linguistic debate in Belgium by reportedly saying French speakers living around Brussels were incapable of learning Dutch, the country's other official language.

Yves Leterme, prime minister of the northern Flanders region, told French daily Liberation that the only thing French and Dutch-speaking citizens of Belgium had in common was the king, the national soccer team and certain brands of beer.

"Apparently, the Francophones are intellectually incapable of learning Dutch," Leterme was quoted as saying in the interview, published on Thursday. "Look at the difficulties Francophone leaders, even the king in this country, have speaking Dutch fluently."

He said his Christian Democratic party would not participate in the federal government after next year's elections if more powers were not handed down to Belgium's two main regions -- Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

French-speaking politicians reacted angrily to the comments.

Elio di Rupo, prime minister of the southern Walloon region, said he was incensed by Leterme's remarks, which he said insulted the honor of Francophones.

"One can only imagine that the remarks ... must have been mistranslated or are an example of improper usage of the French language," he was quoted by another leading French-language daily, La Libre, as saying.

The daily Le Soir newspaper called Leterme's remarks "shocking, arrogant and embarrassing," saying he had "broken bounds." La Libre, commented on Leterme's interview in an editorial headlined "Requiem for Belgium."

Most institutions in Belgium, from cable companies to the boy scouts and health insurance providers, are split into Dutch and French-speaking camps.

Linguistic squabbles have played in headlines for years, with Flanders increasing demands for autonomy for the country's 6 million Dutch speakers.

Many in Flanders complain that their wealthier, service-based economy has been subsidizing Wallonia, which is still recovering from the decline of its coal and steel industry.

Few among the 4.5 million Francophones have made demands for more autonomy.

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