Thousands march against Belgium political impasse

23rd January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Thousands of Belgians staged a march of "Shame" in the capital Sunday to demand a government after a seven-month impasse between Dutch and French-speaking politicians, a European record.

More than 30,000 people answered a Facebook call by students from both sides of the country's language divide in the first demonstration of its kind since inconclusive June elections.

"What do we want? We want a government," cried the protesters, mainly young people, many wearing white jumpsuits in what they had dubbed the march of "Shame".

The outfits were meant to recall the unprecedented "white march" of 1996 when 300,000 people took to the streets of Brussels to protest the crimes of Belgian child killer Marc Dutroux. It was the first of a series of street marches against official incompetence in the scandal, which had undermined confidence in the state.

The political impasse -- in this country hosting European Union headquarters -- reflects a sharpening divide between the Dutch-speaking north and the French-speaking south.

It has frustrated citizens who are multiplying initiatives to pressure political leaders to form a government.

The popular daily la Derniere Heure reported this weekend that a Belgian couple named their newborn "Belgium", to express their support for continued unity in the country.

Politicians have been squabbling over plans to give its different communities more autonomy since the June 13 general election, which also saw a strong vote for Flemish separatists.

The Dutch speakers -- who represent 60 percent of Belgium's 11 million citizens -- want more autonomy for their region, notably in fiscal and social policy.

The French speakers, however, want to limit decentralisation, fearing both a loss of subsidies for their region and the start of a true break-up of the country.

In a tongue-in-cheek reference to the country's most-famous food, French-speaking comedian and cartoonist Philippe Geluck called on protesters to launch a "mussels and fries" revolution on the model of the "Jasmine Revolution" that this month ousted Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Anger at the government impasse has often been laced with humour. Some protesters wore stickers reading "A Beard for Belgium" after a Belgian actor issued a call for men not to shave until the crisis is resolved.

Protester Henri, a 67-year-old French-speaker from Brussels, said "it is time for these sandbox politics to end. Otherwise we have to fear for the country's economic health."

"We want a solution, not this trench warfare between political parties," added another protester, 27-year-old Christophe, a researcher at a Flemish university.

Sunday's demonstration was organised by a group of both Dutch- and French-speaking students who met up in cyberspace and launched the call for a march on website

It also marked Belgium's 224th day without a true government. In January it broke the previous European record, 208 days, obtained in 1977 by its neighbour, the Netherlands.

Iraq holds the world record from 2009 when it took 289 days to form a cabinet.

© 2011 AFP

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