Belgium's linguistic divide

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: I Belgium the European Parliament elections will take place on Sunday. It will be a complicated process due to the various linguistic and cultural considerations that divide Belgium today. For starters the country has three official languages ? Flemish, French, and German. But it doesn't encourage bilingualism. Philippe Delstanche is going to explain some of that for us. He's the leader of a party called ProBruxsel. His party favors a bilingual model for Brussels. And Philippe Delstanche first tells us roughly what language is spoken where.

PHILIPPE DELSTANCHE: Actually Belgium is a federal state. But even if it's clearly said on the Article 3 of the constitution that Belgium is divided into three regions ? Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. In fact we see that everyday the federal state is divided into big communities and communities divided on the language spoken. It's the French community and the Flemish community. I wouldn't forget the German community but it is very small. Its 70,000 people. But for Brussels which is also described clearly in the constitution as a bilingual region you are not allowed to be Brusselize as identity. You have to decide which linguistic community you belong to. Or you are speaking French or you are speaking Flemish. And the fact is that in Brussels there are many people who are belonging to both communities.

WERMAN: Well it would seem to make a lot of sense then to have a bilingual party like ProBruxsel. But you were quoted recently as saying that your attempt to create this party was like a trip to absurdistan. Give us an example of the kind of hardships you've encountered in this process.

DELSTANCHE: It's absolutely clear. For example the fact that for the election we are not allowed to set one bilingual list of candidates. We are obliged to set a list of French-speaking candidates and another one list of Dutch-speaking candidates. You know in order to determine which linguistic sex as we told here you have an identity card and your identity card is always bilingual but not French Flemish. It's in English ? English and Flemish or English and French.

WERMAN: And is that a function of the developments in the last 10, 15 years of the European Union and having English as kind of like the lingua franca for all of Europe and then?

DELSTANCHE: Yeah that's it. Yeah.

WERMAN: I think a lot of Americans when they think of Belgium they think of a quiet little lowland country with pretty good beer. They don't really think linguistic conflict. How deed is the tension between Flemish and French speakers?

DELSTANCHE: Actually in the population there is no real conflict. And certainly not in Brussels where Flemish-speaking and French-speaking people live together, work together, and trying to speak the language of the other. But actually you know I must say that the politicians have made a case of that. It's a way to crystallize the difference between the French-speaking politicians and the Flemish-speaking politicians. It doesn't really have an echo in the population. But it's a game that the politicians are playing for their own interests.

WERMAN: Is it your goal to spread bilingualism eventually to the entire nation of Belgium?

DELSTANCHE: I think it's too late. We should have done it one century before. But I think it's certainly possible to do it here in Brussels.

WERMAN: Philippe Delstanche leader of ProBruxsel Party. Thank you very much for speaking with us.
DELSTANCHE: Thank you to you.

WERMAN: You can hear more language related stories on our podcast The World in Words. In this week's edition President Obama's Arabic skills, Chinese world play intended to defy Government sensors, and Bengali hip-hop. Check it out at