BRUSSELS — Until recently, Henri Van Ranst enjoyed a quiet, calm, and prosperous life common here in Belgium. He rose from waiter to owner of the famed Villa Lorraine, a temple of haute cuisine, where an average meal costs $150 per person.
But these days, the murder of several teenagers and the accompanying series of judicial and child-sex scandals have stunned Mr. Van Ranst and his fellow good-living 10 million Belgians.
Elsewhere, murders and corruption may be the main course of daily news. But Belgium, which enjoys one of the world's highest standards of living, has long believed that it is beyond the reach of the sordid.
The shock has been such that more than 300,000 citizens - the proportional equivalent of 10 million Americans - recently marched in Brussels demanding reform.
Our entire system "is corrupt," complains Van Ranst, looking out over his Old World-style dining room. The political and social crisis threatens to undo the country's recently recovered fiscal good standing, confirmed by the passage of a new budget.
Worse, the scandals could further aggravate the country's two linguistic groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons, leading to the possible split of this small kingdom in the heart of Europe.
"When I moved here, I thought I was coming to a quiet, nice country," says Tom McGuire, an American consultant in Brussels. "People thought their children were safe. They trusted their police. They trusted their judges."
Belgium's security, plus its central location and home to the European Commission, has helped make the country a mecca for foreign investors. In 1996 alone, major American companies such as Manpower, UPS, and Chrysler all established new European headquarters here.
None are reconsidering their decision, but Chrysler Vice President Hans Tjun was shocked to learn that a grisly triple murder had taken place in his neighborhood restaurant. "We couldn't imagine Brussels to be anything like Detroit," he says.
One scandal after another
The country's crisis of confidence first erupted this summer after police freed two children who had allegedly been abducted by convicted pedophile Marc Dutroux. Police also discovered the bodies of four small girls buried below Mr. Dutroux's various properties and are continuing to search for more. The atrocities were compounded by claims by the parents that Dutroux might have been intentionally protected by politicians and police.
Although he had been convicted in 1989 of raping several young children, his 13-year sentence was shortened twice in general amnesties granted by the king. Then, in 1992, Dutroux was released for good behavior.
He allegedly proceeded to build an entire pedophile ring by registering himself and his wife as invalids and collecting monthly checks of almost $3,000 from the Belgian social security system.
Public disquiet over these revelations was further fueled in August when police arrested five people, including a former Socialist cabinet minister, for the 1991 murder of Socialist leader Andri Cools.
Pedophile charges levied against Vice Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo in December might have been summarily dismissed and disregarded by the public under most circumstances. Mr. Di Rupo has denied the charge that he had sex with a teenage boy, and his accuser, who is now serving a jail sentence for robbery, has changed his story several times. The country's supreme court and the parliament voted that not enough evidence existed to lift Di Rupo's immunity. But the current public mood, increasingly critical of the government, has meant that these allegations did not go unnoticed.
The scandals have also distracted the country's already shaky Christian-Democrat-Socialist coalition from pressing economic priorities. Since 1994, Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene has brought government debt down from a European record high 139 percent to 127 percent of GDP.
"The government has made significant progress restoring health to the economy," says Jean-Paul Hologne, an economist at Banque Bruxelles Lambert. "It now has to keep up the good work."
An even larger question concerns reestablishing confidence in the police and judicial system.
Prosecutors and judges here are appointed by political parties, limiting their independence. "Political patronage is needed even in order to get a position as a cleaning lady in a public administration," complains Paul Belien, director of the conservative Center for the New Europe.
Split in the making
Mr. Belien represents a radical edge of Flemish opinion - his wife serves in parliament as a member of the far-right Vlams Blok and French speakers have attacked his writings. But many mainstream Flemmings support his charges that the decades-long control of the Socialist Party in French-speaking Wallonia has spawned endemic corruption.
Wallonia, the home to the country's faltering steel and coal industries, is hit by high unemployment and dependent on government handouts. "We need more economic independence from Wallonia," insists Wim Van der Baeken of the Flemish Employers Union. "We want to control how our own taxes are spent."
Children from both the Flemish and Walloon communities were abducted and abused in the pedophile scandal, briefly uniting the two linguistic communities. Still, the common tragedy threatens to divide the country.
"At first, a feeling existed that if the families of the victims could work together, then so could Belgium," Belien acknowledges. "But then people here looked at why Dutroux received so much in social security payments and we said it's because of the French [Walloon] socialists and their corruption."
Such charges infuriate French-speakers - a few to the point of separation. For the first time, a leading Walloon socialist has threatened in parliament to leave Belgium and join neighboring France and the subject has entered common political discourse. Recently, the national RTBF TV station aired a show with the provocative title, "Will Belgium Split?" and the mainstream newspaper, Le Soir, completed a long series of articles describing in detail scenarios for separation.
Just as Czechoslovakia split with one community declaring independence, so could Belgium. And if the split does come, it probably won't be violent, like Czechoslovakia.
"We're not like Bosnia," insists restaurateur Van Ranst. "Belgians prefer to retreat into our homes and enjoy a good meal rather than go out onto the streets with guns."