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Leterme: Belgium’s gaffe-prone boomerang premier

Published on 26/11/2009

Brussels — New Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme is as well known at home for a series of faux pas as for his ability to boomerang back into high office.

Leterme, restored to the premiership by King Albert II on Wednesday after Herman Van Rompuy was named the European Union’s first president, has frequently upset the French-speaking half of his bitterly-divided country.

One of the 49-year-old conservative’s worst gaffes was calling the small European kingdom of some 10 million people "an accident of history," although many among the Flemish majority to which he largely owes allegiance would firmly agree.

Certainly, singing ‘La Marseillaise’ when asked if he knew the Belgian national anthem was particularly offensive to the fiercely proud, French-speaking Belgian Walloons.

If he were a comedian, he might well have made any pub list of 10 famous Belgians for a gem of a quip in which he suggested that all the Belgian people share is their "king, national football team and certain beers."

That, of course, could prove to be a phrase that comes back to haunt him in his second stint as head of government as he bids to hold down divisions based on linguistic lines, but which are mainly echoed in economic and political grievances.

He has also previously disparaged French speakers by suggesting they lack the "intellectual capacity" to learn Dutch.

At a time when Belgian unionists on both sides of the tracks — the country also has a small German-speaking minority — fear a return to separatist tensions, a past claim that Belgium has no "intrinsic value" even as a federal state could also bite him in the behind.

Leterme, who was forced out of office in December 2008 amid a banking bailout scandal, returned as Van Rompuy’s foreign minister in the summer.

Dubbed by local newspapers as the equivalent of an unlit lantern — in a French-language play on his name — Leterme only succeeded in forming a coalition first time out in March 2008.

That followed a crippling political limbo which set in despite winning general elections as far back as June 2007.

As Belgium returns to an uncertain future, facing fresh squabbling between Flemish and French-speaking rivals, Leterme’s hastily-arranged re-appointment nevertheless gives the Flemish conservative and his country shots at rehabilitation.

Leterme was recommended by Van Rompuy after the king tasked another former premier Wilfried Martens with organising "a quick and efficient transition" that would limit the potential for damaging new disputes.

But doubts abound over his chances of avoiding renewed crisis and potentially even a definitive split between Dutch-speaking Flanders and francophone, and economically disadvantaged, Wallonia.

Although fluent in French and Dutch with parents hailing from both of the Belgium’s main communities, the father of three faced deep-seated opposition when he tried to push through controversial reforms devolving power ever farther to the regions.

He had already offered to resign in July 2008 as Flemish demands for greater autonomy neared fever pitch, but the sovereign refused to let him go on that occasion — and demonstrated his belief in the former EU civil servant with Wednesday’s call to arms.

While Leterme won praise at the height of the financial crisis for the rapid rescue of two big banks, minority shareholders successfully appealed against his government’s orchestration of the sale of troubled Fortis’ Belgian assets to France’s BNP Paribas.

And in the wake of the ruling, his aides were accused by a top judge of seeking to influence justice officials in the case — which proved to be the fatal blow to his last government.

Leterme has in the past suffered bouts of ill-health, and will have to demonstrate new-found stamina if he is to transcend regional and even national politics.

Belgium takes over the EU’s rotating presidency, which now operates at individual policy levels, in the second half of 2010.