Feuding Belgium leaders under pressure from the street

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Belgium's feuding Flemish and French-speaking leaders are under mounting pressure from the street to form a government after seven months of haggling, following a protest gathering 34,000 angry citizens.

In an unusually large protest, organised by a handful of youngsters on Facebook, Belgians from across the north-south language divide which is threatening to split the country apart, marched in Brussels Sunday shouting "Shame!" at the politicians.

There was no immediate response from the seven parties bogged down in tough talks since a June election that failed to deliver a clear winner.

Commentators dubbed it a wake-up call to leaders as the country of 11 million that hosts the European Union and NATO heads rudderless into economic and political fog.

In an event often laced with humour, a well-known comedian called for a "mussels and fries" revolution and some protesters wore stickers reading "A Beard for Belgium" after a Belgian actor call on men not to shave until the political crisis is resolved.

"What do we want? We want a government," said the protesters.

With Belgium holding Europe's record as the nation longest without a government, French-langauge daily Le Soir headlined its coverage of the march "A Call To Order" while Flemish De Standaard said the protesters sent "a strong signal."

But speculating on the "what next?" factor, analysts and editorialists seemed sceptical that the strong show of citizens' frustration might suddenly bridge Belgium's wide political gulf.

"The demonstration piles up the pressure," said political scientist Dave Sinardet. "But I'm not sure it will have a concrete effect on the politicians," he told Le Soir.

Politicians have been squabbling over a deal to transfer federal powers to its different communities since the June 13 election in which Flemish separatists emerged the leading party.

Flemish speakers -- who represent 60 percent across Belgium -- want more autonomy for their region, notably in fiscal and social policy.

But the French-speaking south fears a loss of subsidies for their once wealthy although not deprived region as well as the start of a break-up of the country.

One daily reported this weekend that a Belgian couple had named their newborn "Belgium" to express their support for continued unity in the country.

Sunday's demonstration was organised by a group of both Flemish- and French-speaking students who met up in cyberspace and launched the call for a march on website www.230111.be.

It marked Day 224 without a government after Belgium in January broke the previous European record of 208 days, reached in 1977 by neighbouring Netherlands.

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

As Belgium extends the dubious record, citizens this month began to take the initiative.

"No Government, Great Country," says SHAME, the site at http://230111.be set up by a group of men in their early 20s.

"We have decided to stop shaving for as long as Belgium has no government," said Benoit Poelvoorde, star of early 1990s mockumentary "Man Bites Dog" and the recent "Coco After Chanel."

"Let's keep our beards until Belgium rises again," he said on Belgian TV.

A caretaker government is running day-to-day business but ratings agencies have warned Belgium could be in line shortly for attack in the rumbling euro crisis failing the formation of a stable cabinet.

© 2011 AFP

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