Belgium's new gay Socialist premier: from rags to riches
Elio Di Rupo, who will become Europe's second openly gay government leader when he is sworn in as Belgium's new premier on Tuesday, is a 60-year-old career politician whose life reads like a storybook.
Born in 1951 in a migrant shanty-town to an Italian coalminer father and illiterate mother, Di Rupo will be the first French-speaking leader of language-divided Belgium in more than 30 years and its first Socialist prime minister since 1974.
He takes over from Flemish centre-right caretaker premier Yves Leterme after negotiating an end to the longest political impasse in the country's history -- more than 500 days without a government.
Ironically, it was the financial markets that helped Di Rupo conclude 18 months of tortuous negotiations, when a sudden credit downgrade lent new urgency to talks between six parties to finalise a coalition agreement.
Ridiculed for his poor command of Dutch, spoken by 60 percent of the country's 10.5 million people, Di Rupo brought together three French-speaking parties with three from wealthier Flanders, where separatists are fast gaining a deep hold.
"The agreements are very fragile and the cultural gap within Belgium is deepening. It won't be a party," warned analyst Pascal Delwit.
The new coalition notably excludes a powerful pro-independence Flemish party that won the majority of votes in Flanders at the last June 2010 elections.
One of the few centre-left voices in crisis-hit Europe, the soft-spoken politician with the mop of dark hair and craze for bow-ties takes office committed to cutting 11.3 billion euros off the national budget.
The last of seven children, Di Rupo was a 12-month toddler when his father died crushed by a truck. He was left in the care of his mother while the brothers and sisters were farmed off to welfare institutions.
Biographers claim he owned a single pair of trousers as a child, while one of his former teachers said he had admitted when a teenager to "having two shirts and two pairs of pants my mother washes constantly".
The young Di Rupo was bright, a talented orator, and a natural leader, the teacher said. He went on to unversity, graduating with a PhD in chemistry.
But by then Di Rupo was involved in leftwing politics, joining the Socialist party at age 17 in the early 1980s.
In 1999, he took the party's helm, winning consecutive seats as member of parliament, senator, European MP, deputy premier, head of the southern government of Wallonia and mayor of the city of Mons.
Like Iceland's Johanna Sigurdardottir, Di Rupo, a quiet if forceful politician, is as discreet about his sexuality as is the country at large.
According to a just-released book of interviews, he came out a little by chance in the mid-1990s after being wrongly accused of abuse during the scandal caused by Belgian serial child killer Marc Dutroux.
He is quoted as saying: "'This is totally false,' I said as a crowd of journalists milled around. One of them said: 'People say you're homosexual?' I turned around and said 'Yes. So what?' I'll never forget that instant. After my reply everything went silent. It was a sincere reply, the truth.'"
A tactically clever politician, Di Rupo has been hailed for his skill in striking coalition deals that kept his party in office in a string of governments. He also successfully steered it through a series of devastating corruption scandals.
But his one black mark is his controversially poor Dutch.
His thick laboured accent is all the talk in the media, particularly after mixing his verbs in a recent speech by calling on Belgians to drink (drinken) when he meant to say it was urgent (dringen) to agree to austerity.
"He's ready to be prime minister, apart from his Dutch," said the biggest Flemish daily Het Laasste Nieuws.
"I'm going to work on it," Di Rupo. "I will reply in Dutch in parliament, even with mistakes."
© 2011 AFP