Wallonia's reluctant celebrity

27th February 2004, Comments 0 comments

This Monday the sleepy Belgian city of Arlon will be thrust reluctantly into the global media spotlight when it plays host to the long awaited trial of Belgium's notorious suspected child murder, Marc Dutroux. Renee Cordes visits the quiet Walloon backwater to find out how it is readying itself for the ordeal.

The media circus is already in town

Guy Larcier, the bourgmestre of Arlon in southern Belgium, refuses to speak the name Marc Dutroux aloud.

The trial of the alleged child murderer taking place here starting 1 March and already dubbed the "Arlon trial" has suddenly thrust his town into the international spotlight.

This is most certainly not the sort of thing that usually happens here. Arlon is a pleasant but sleepy home to 24,000 Belgians that is tucked away near the border with Luxembourg.

Although the city is the capital of Belgium's Luxembourg province, life here is fairly quiet. In the center of town there's just one main shopping street, and though Arlon competes with Tournai and Tongres for the title of Belgium's oldest town, its two showcase museums and folklore festivals do not exactly pull in hordes of tourists.

For many Brussels residents, Arlon is simply the last stop on the road to Luxembourg.

That's not to say there's no life here.

*quote1*The city is a major learning centre, with 3,000 to 4,000 secondary students alone.

It is also one of the richest cities in Wallonia and the local economy appears to be firing on all cylinders.

Everyday Arlon welcomes 4,800 commuters from neighboring Luxembourg. The biggest local company, the Ferrero Rocher chocolate factory, employs around 1000 people.

Like most of his fellow townsfolk, Larcier would like any association, however remote, between Arlon and the accused to be forgotten as quickly as possible.

"The residents of Arlon did not ask for this trial, nor did the magistrate, nor did the mayor of Arlon," Larcier tells Expatica during an interview in his office, occasionally interrupted by phone calls from a host of other media and Wallonian Interior Minister Charles Michel, son of Belgium's foreign minister Louis Michel, concerned about public works scheduled near the courthouse during the trial.

("It's the first time I've ever been called directly by a minister himself," Larcier confesses.)

But whether Larcier likes it or not, Arlon is where the trial will take place, because it's the capital of the province where the alleged crimes were committed and where the investigation began that led to Dutroux's arrest in 1996.

More than 1,300 journalists have been accredited, though only 15 of them – and 50 to 60 members of the public - will be allowed in the courtroom at any one time. Another 200 persons will be allowed to watch the trial proceedings on closed-circuit television.

Bourgemestre Guy Larcier refuses to say Dutroux's name

Larcier's job is to make sure that all runs smoothly during the trial, estimated to take anywhere between six weeks and three months with more than 400 witnesses scheduled to take the stand.

Dismissing reports that the entire town will be cordoned off for the duration of the trial, Larcier points out on a map that pedestrian and passenger traffic will only be restricted in the area immediately surrounding the courthouse, a 200-square-meter facility that opened last year (though not built specially for this trial, he's quick to point out) and cost an estimated EUR 12 million. Hundreds of Belgian gendarmes, and more than 100 Arlon local police, are at the ready in case of any trouble.

Parking for some 800 vehicles will be available. When court is in session, shuttle buses run by the Belgian Army will take visitors from their cars to the courthouse. Court will be in session from 9am to 5pm, which city officials feel will ensure a smooth commute for everyone.

Though some local merchants say customers may have trouble finding parking spaces close to shops, for the most part they're not worried about losing business because of the trial. "We are specialised so that if our clients need anything it will not make a big difference," says a salesman at Sport-Mania on the Grand Rue, Arlon's main pedestrian shopping street, who himself has no plans to follow the trial.

Just around the corner, the pregnant owner of La Lettre Eclarate on Rue du Marché-au-Beurre said that her customers would come no matter what. She also does not intend to follow the trial, but points out that now that it's finally starting, it means the trial will one day come to an end.

Many residents walking briskly on a chilly February Grand Rue feel the same.  "I'm sick and tired of it," says one. "Dutroux? It doesn't interest me," barks another.

Obviously journalists covering the trial will bring more business to the city's hotels and restaurants – though one entrepreneur's request to set up a cafeteria next to the courthouse was reportedly turned down.

Life Goes On

During the trial, city officials hope that daily life will go on as normal.

"Above all else, the population of Arlon must keep a cool head and be respectful," says Henri Bosseler, Arlon's echevin, or alderman, in charge of urban planning, tourism and public health, among other things.

"It must project an important image to the world of the town of Arlon, the Belgian justice system and Belgium in general," the lifelong Arlon resident adds.

Sculpture in front of the Arlon courthouse where Dutroux will stand trial

Before the trial, the city organised a series of meetings to ensure that townsfolk would understand what would happen, and to dispel any unfounded fears.

The first meeting was with residents who live in the area surrounding the courthouse, the second with businesses and the third was open to all local people.

Larcier's message to them all? "Life will continue as normal in Arlon."

On the judicial side, that means all sorts of court cases that normally take place won't be disrupted. The city has no plans to cancel its Carnevel celebrations in March, nor its Maitrank festival of local white wine in May. But if the trial goes beyond July, when the city's annual carnival takes place on the Plaine de Manoeuvres just behind the courthouse, it could spell catastrophe.

"I prefer not to think about it," says Larcier, adding that there are no plans for now to cancel the event.

*quote2*City officials do not expect any violent demonstrations during the trial; in fact, there are only two pro-victim gatherings scheduled – other requests were turned down.

But Larcier doesn't expect these demonstrations to reach the same emotional intensity as that of the 1996 White March when 300,000 people marched peacefully through Brussels bearing white balloons, white lilies and white roses to show their support for Dutroux's alleged victims and to mourn the loss of the country's innocence.

"I do not expect any violent demonstrations in connection with the trial," he says. "This is not a political trial, nor a trial involving the trade unions."

Still, one must be prepared for all eventualities, and that's why the police will be on guard and a special hospital room has already been reserved in case anything should happen to Dutroux during the trial.

Tourism Boost?

Once the ordeal is over and done with, Larcier hopes the world will quickly forget Arlon had anything to do with one of Belgium's most notorious accused criminals and instead think of it only as a charming little town.

Ironically, the Belgian television stations that will spend the duration of the trial camped out in front of the courthouse could help him make that wish come true.

In return for getting free parking, some stations have promised to broadcast pieces after the trial has ended touting Arlon's positive qualities, Bosseler said.

But they made no commitment in writing to do this however, just a handshake, so the broadcasters could always renege on their promises.

Still, for this town with not much to offer in the way of historical sights save a few churches and a couple of museums currently closed for renovation, that's better than nothing.

And how would Larcier and Bosseler like their town to be remembered?

As a dynamic, pretty small town in solid financial health. Its two most notable museums, the Musée Luxembourgeois best known for its Gallo-Roman collection and the Musée Gaspar, are also set to reopen later this year in new and improved digs.

If that's not enough, Arlon also hopes to reap some of the benefits when nearby Luxembourg is European capital of culture in 2007.

February 2004

Subject: Belgian news, Dutroux, Arlon

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