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Belgium’s Language Divide Affects Everything From Government to Soccer Clubs

The divide between French speakers and Dutch speakers in Belgium has grown increasingly intractable, and currently affects everything from how well the country’s government does (or does not) function to coaching schoolchildren at a soccer club.

According to the Associated Press, the KFC Strombeek soccer club of Grimbergen, Belgium has been officially banned from coaching children’s soccer in French. Apparently, when Dutch-speaking citizens of the town heard coaches were speaking French to some of the children (presumably, children who already spoke French), they organized a petition to ensure that future coaching sessions were conducted entirely in Dutch.

That might seem mean-spirited, but it’s symptomatic of a divide that extends throughout Belgian society. In fact, over 2 months after the last elections, Belgium’s government is at a standstill as French and Dutch factions of 7 political parties try to negotiate the next steps.  The party that won the elections, the New Flemish Alliance, wants to split the country in two.

The bulk of Belgium’s economic activity and prosperity is concentrated in the Dutch half of the country, leading many Dutch speakers to resent their French-speaking countrymen. But why take these tensions out on a soccer club?

That’s what Christian Donneux, the president of the soccer club, would like to know. He told the AP:

“We are a sports club, not a political party. Many of my patients here in Grimbergen are Francophones. Am I supposed to send them away?”

Meanwhile, Robert Timmermans, the man who organized the petition against the soccer club, watched a group of French-speaking children at practice and declared:

“They must be coached in Dutch. This is our soccer field. (Dutch-speakers) paid for it. It is our tax money. Grimbergen is a Dutch-speaking town.”‘

Linguistic Divide in Belgium

Belgium’s European parliament election, which is due to take place on 7th June, has been riddled with feuds over the rights of Dutch and French speakers.

The BBC reports that francophone political parties have been denied billboard space for their election posters in two mainly Dutch speaking municipalities close to Brussels.

Belgian politics closely mirrors the countries deep linguistic divide. Around 60% of Belgium’s population speak Dutch, while 40% speak French. Approximately 100,000 French speakers live in the mainly Dutch speaking suburbs of the capital.

Political paralysis hit Belgium after last year’s general election. With its long running tensions over language rights effecting all parties, it took months for the political parties to form a new coalition.

This is a difficult and very complicated issue for any country to bear.  Can the Belgian politicians work together and learn to communicate despite the language barriers?

Dutch or French? The Line Between the Two Threatens to Divide Belgium

Belgium is like two countries rolled up into one-French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders. Soon, the tension between the two may split the country apart.

French and Dutch spoken in Belgium

The conflict between the two language groups goes back to when the country was founded in the 19th century. At that time, the country’s ruling class spoke French. In fact, if you wanted to be anyone in Belgium, you had to learn to speak French even if you grew up speaking Dutch. However, the majority of the people in Flanders, a slim majority of the population Belgian population as a whole, speaks Dutch (or Flemish). Over time, the Flemings were able to make Dutch the official language of Flanders, while French remained the official language of Wallonia.

A recent article in The Guardian describes just how fragile this linguistic compromise has become: Walloons and Flemings live apart, work apart and generally don’t marry. In the few bilingual communities, French-speaking students learn in separate classrooms from their Dutch-speaking counterparts. The tension between the two groups has left the government crippled.

The article quotes Jeroen Vermeiren, a Flemish bookseller just outside Brussels, who reassured the newspaper that:

“We won’t fall into madness, like Serbia and Croatia. But it creates great emotions on both sides.”

The Guardian wryly notes that while the two halves of Belgium are divided by language and culture, there is something that unites them: the national debt. The article compares the two sides to:

“a couple trapped in a loveless marriage, eyeing divorce but unable to agree on the mortgage liabilities,” and says that “the Flemings and the Walloons may be stuck together because of the cost of splitting up.”

Shared debt is not a good foundation for a country any more than it is for a marriage. Hopefully, the two sides are able to work something out and move ahead amicably, either as fellow citizens or just as neighbors.