Belgian prime minister offers to step down over language squabble

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A dispute over a French-speaking mayor of a rural Belgian town has erupted into a national linguistic war which could cost Prime Minister Wilfried Martens his job. Martens offered his resignation to King Baudouin yesterday after failing to resolve a language row that has split his coalition of Dutch and French speakers, a government spokeswoman said.

The national crisis follows two years of wrangling over whether French-speaking Mayor Jose Happart should be allowed to hold office in an area where the official language is Dutch.

The Dutch-speaking Flemish make up about 57 percent of Belgium's almost 10 million population and the French-speaking Walloons 42 percent.

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Martens unexpectedly went to the Royal Palace after a Cabinet meeting yesterday morning, shortly before he was due to make a crucial address to Parliament. Political analysts say Martens would need all his skill to muster enough votes to survive a parliamentary debate. But they do not rule out a coalition ploy to gain more time.

Martens has been prime minister for six years and has served longer than any Belgian leader since World War II. Only last year he won a fresh mandate for his center-right administration.

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