Thousands march against Belgian political impasse

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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.

About 34,000 people took part in the march, police said, answering a Facebook call by young people from both sides of the country's language divide in the first demonstration of its kind since inconclusive June elections.

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," 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 has undermined confidence in the state.

One of the event's organisers, 23-year-old graphic designer Simon Vandereecken, hailed the march as a success "that exceeded our hopes."

"Our politicians will have to react after such a turnout. If not, we will see what initiatives to take," he told AFP.

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.

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.

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

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 -- a tongue-in-cheek reference to the country's most-famous dish.

Henri, a 67-year-old French-speaker from Brussels who joined the protest, 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.

In the only incident police reported during the event, five Flemish extremists were detained as they tried to destroy pamphlets distributed to protesters.

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.

For the moment, an interim cabinet is handling the country's affairs.

A editorial in the Belgian daily Le Soir praised the willingness of young demonstrators to take to the streets.

Their message might be simplistic, naive and unfair on those politicians who have battled for months to find a way out of the impasse, she conceded.

"But above all, it expresses the popular feeling."

© 2011 AFP

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