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Pardon My French: Belgians Just Don’t Speak the Same Language

June 11, 2010

John W. Miller in WSJ:

Rudi Coel scowled at the sight of the Thai restaurant advertising “Takeaway.” “We’re in Flanders, so that should say ‘Meenemengerechten,’ ” said the 50-year-old social worker, using the proper Dutch word.

The euro zone is in turmoil, and Belgium’s heavy government debts are drawing comparisons with those of Greece. But the main issue before Belgians in their general election Sunday speaks to a much deeper concern here: language.

Among the issues roiling this Franco-Dutch land: Whether folks in the Brussels suburbs can bury their dead in a language other than Dutch, or whether a 75-year-old politician can make a speech in French in a mainly Dutch district. The simmering tensions between the country’s Dutch-speaking Flemish majority and its Francophone minority are as old as the hills. The latest feud, over the Brussels suburbs, tore apart a coalition government in April, triggering the June 13 parliamentary elections.

The 35 small suburban towns at the center of the dispute are home to tens of thousands of French-speaking Belgians and English-speaking expatriates. These people have a special legal status: They’re in Dutch-speaking Flanders but, under a 1963 treaty, they are treated as part of Brussels in national elections and in some judicial matters. Brussels is formally controlled by both language groups, but, in practice, is mostly populated, and run, by Francophones. Outside the city limits, you’ve got to mind your language. [More]

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