Belgian school bans French with surprising zeal

11th September 2006, Comments 0 comments

MERCHTEM, Belgium, Sept 10, 2006 (AFP) - A month ahead of Belgium's local elections and amid strong support for the far right in the Flemish north, a school near Brussels has taken the unusual step of banning the use of French.

MERCHTEM, Belgium, Sept 10, 2006 (AFP) - A month ahead of Belgium's local elections and amid strong support for the far right in the Flemish north, a school near Brussels has taken the unusual step of banning the use of French.

Dutch is obligatory under Flemish law, but the rule is being enforced with surprising zeal and the move has sent ripples through the community at a time of great tension between Belgium's French and Dutch speakers.

Students at the primary school in Merchtem can only speak Dutch in the classroom or the playground, and parents must do so too when they talk to staff — or bring an interpreter.

"It's ridiculous. You can't stop a brother from speaking to his own sister in the playground," said one mother, — bilingual but of Flemish origin and who gave her name as Veerle — standing outside the school gate.

According to the town hall, only around eight percent of the 1,400 students in all of Merchtem's state schools come from families where Dutch is not, or rarely, spoken.

But that tiny minority is causing friction in Flanders.

Some here fear that people from Brussels — a 90 percent French-speaking enclave in the Flemish part of the country — are spreading slowly into the region; a phenomenon known locally as the 'oil stain'.

At "De Plataan" primary school, headmaster Luc Willocx explained that his staff were having "more and more difficulties communicating correctly with the parents" of non-Dutch speaking students.

So the town hall adopted a measure at the end of last month banning the use of all languages other than Dutch, whether in written or oral form.

Those who disobey will receive a "warning", said Merchtem Mayor Eddie De Blok — who like Willocx can speak French — without clarifying what that might mean.

Far from creating divisions, he said, the move is actually about "speeding up integration."

Yasmina, another bilingual mother whose child attends the school agreed.

"At least this way they'll learn," she said.

For Thierry, a French storeman who claims to be "well integrated" in Merchtem, there is no doubt that the move is part of "a policy of discrimination against French speakers."

It is all a far cry from Belgium's role as host to the European Union's institutions, and its proud belief that it has historically been able to resolve disputes between its linguistic communities.

Statistically, the federal state has a population of some 10.5 million people. Around six million of them live in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, 3.5 million in French-speaking Wallonia, and one million in Brussels.

Today the country's richest region, Flanders remains troubled by painful memories of the 19th century when the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, who spoke French whether they were from Wallonia or Flanders, held sway.

In recent years, Flemish authorities have introduced measures aimed at limiting the use and influence of French. Wallonia, for example, is banned from funding French-speaking associations in Flanders.

People wishing to live in the region in state housing must also learn Dutch, officially so they can understand the mail they will receive.

Tensions only look like mounting.

A comment by one Flemish deputy last month in a French newspaper — "apparently francophones are just not smart enough to learn Dutch" — has further set the cat among the linguistic pigeons.

And Flemish parties — not just the far-right Vlaams Belang credited with some 25 percent support — have threatened to pull out of federal government after next year's general elections if the region is not granted wider powers.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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