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Belgian PM quizzed in parliament over Nazi row

Published on 14/10/2014

Belgium's new prime minister faced a raucous first day in parliament on Tuesday amid opposition demands to explain the attitude of two ministers towards wartime collaboration with Nazi occupiers.

Chaos erupted as Charles Michel, the 38-year-old French-speaking premier, refused to answer repeated questions about the behaviour of the two Flemish nationalist ministers in his new centre-right coalition.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon was quoted as saying in a newspaper on Monday that Flemish collaborators with the Nazi occupiers in Belgium during World War II “had their reasons”.

Meanwhile Immigration and Asylum Minister Theo Francken was accused by opposition lawmakers of attending a meeting to mark the 90th birthday of a man convicted after the war of collaborating with the Nazis.

Both ministers are from the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), led by the controversial separatist campaigner Bart De Wever from Belgium’s Flemish-speaking north, the largest party in the coalition.

The row has reopened old wounds over Belgium’s wartime history, a divisive chapter in a country that is already sharply divided between the richer Flemish north and the poorer French-speaking south.

Michel’s Reform Movement (MR) is the only French-speaking party along with three Flemish parties in the coalition, which was formed last week after five months of intense negotiations following elections in May.

– ‘Kamikaze coalition’ –

Michel, Belgium’s youngest premier since 1840, was trying to give a speech in parliament outlining his new government’s priorities, having been sworn in by King Philippe on Saturday, but kept being shouted down.

“Two major issues have cropped up to disturb this young government,” said former minister Laurette Onkelinx, from the francophone socialist party, citing the incidents involving Jambon and Francken.

She called on Michel to explain their actions before he started on his political speech.

“I hear your intervention and I will react,” Michel said, but added that any response had to come “after the vote of confidence” in his new government, which is expected on Thursday.

He had to face down several more interruptions before starting to outline his government’s reformist plans, which include raising the pension age, reducing company taxes and combating the growing problem of young Muslims going to Syria.

“I want a government that unites, not divides,” said Michel.

Even before the latest controversy, the coalition had been nicknamed the “Kamikaze Coalition” in Belgian newspapers because of scepticism that it would be able to survive the tensions between the different parties and languages.

De Wever himself angered Francophones in 2010 when he accused them of historical amnesia over wartime collaboration within their own ranks.

Many people in Flanders believe that the purge that followed the liberation of Belgium mainly targeted Flemish collaborators, many of whom threw their lot in with the Nazis in hope of securing a separate homeland, while prosecutions were rarer in French-speaking Wallonia.