Belgium's `linguistic demon' stirs. Small-town conflict may spark language war

Peaceful pastures and gently rolling hills in this rural region of eastern Belgium belie rising tempers over an issue that could shake the tranquility of the nation in the coming weeks. The issue is language -- long a source of friction in a country historically split between its French- and Dutch-speaking communities. It is here in a region known as the Fourons (Voeren in Dutch) that linguistic disputes have come close to all-out war on several occasions in the recent past.

In the Fourons today, boy rarely meets girl across an imaginary linguistic divide. The town's two soccer teams -- one Dutch-speaking, the other French-speaking -- never meet. A militant Francophone mayor who refuses to prove his proficiency in Dutch now threatens to spark a major social and political crisis. Next month, Belgium's Council of State, which advises the government on judicial and constitutional matters, is expected to hand down its decision in the case of Fourons Mayor Jose Happart.

Whichever way it rules, its decision is bound to sorely anger one of Belgium's rival linguistic groups. Cabinet ministers in the linguistically divided center-right coalition government of Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, moreover, will almost certainly feel obliged to take sides in the dispute, possibly provoking a replay of events in the early 1970s when language-inspired conflicts led to the collapse of no fewer than two national governments.

Mr. Happart was appointed mayor of the Fourons in 1982. The region has been a hotbed of linguistic strife since 1963 when it was moved from the French-speaking province of Li`ege to the Dutch-speaking province of Limburg in an administrative reshuffle. In 1984, the Limburg provincial government ordered Happart to prove his proficiency in Dutch as part of a delicate compromise worked out by Prime Minister Martens after the Dutch-speaking ministers in the national government threatened to resign if Happart's appointment was not withdrawn.

Predictably, the mayor refused to take the test, and the Limburg government promptly fired him. Happart -- just as promptly -- appealed to the Council of State. The former mayor argues that the Belgian Constitution does not require mayors to learn a second language.

Observers believe that a government crisis over Happart would be particularly unfortunate at this time. They say Belgium's ``linguistic demon,'' which has been silent for years as attention has shifted to resolving the country's economic problems, would be revived, pitting one linguistic group against another just as the economy has begun to recover.

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