A walk at the front line

9 09 2008

I once heard someone who works in the tourism industry say that some tourists are afraid to come to Belgium, because they think a civil war is about to break out here. Last Sunday I went to the battlefield, to see how bad things actually are. This is my dispatch from the place in Belgium where political tensions run at their highest: the Flemish towns around Brussels.

The 3 Belgian regions

The 3 Belgian regions

Brussels is a bilingual isle, surrounded by monolingual Flemish towns. At least, that’s the theory. (the concept of “facilities” makes it slightly more complicated. I’ll write about that later) As Brussels grew bigger, more and more French-speaking Belgians decided to move to the Flemish towns, resulting in rising house prices. Consequently, many young Flemish families could no longer afford living in the town they grew up in. This further strengthened the effects of what Flemings call the frenchification. Some Flemish towns around Brussels now have more French-speaking inhabitants than Dutch-speaking ones.

That would all be fine if Francophones who move to Flanders learned Dutch to speak with their neighbours and in their contacts with the local government. But many of them don’t. Instead, some of them complain about discrimination and demand to be served in French. Some even demand the transfer of Flemish towns to the Brussels region.

Once a year, on the first Sunday of September, tens of thousands of Flemings gather in these border towns for an event called the “Gordel”. It is the largest annual sports event in Flanders. The participants explore the beautiful Flemish countryside around Brussels by bike or on foot. The Gordel organisers call it “the funnest day of the year” and try to fulfill this promise with all kinds of activities for children along the hiking routes and with concerts in the 5 towns where the routes end.There are no political speeches at the Gordel and you won’t find political symbols on their website. It is first and foremost a family sports event, but one with a clear political message. The goal of the event is to strengthen the ties between the towns around Brussels and the rest of Flanders. Many participants carry Flemish flags or wear stickers and every year groups of politicians (including ministers and mayors) participate wearing T-shirts with slogans demanding the electoral district of BHV to be split up.

The political message makes this event slightly more adventurous than the average cycling or hiking tour. Sabotage by political opponents has become part of the Gordel tradition. The organisers run a call center where incidents can be reported and have special anti-sabotage teams who are ready to replace vandalized signposts or to clean up nails that have been scattered along the cycling routes.

But this years Gordel promised to be even more adventurous. The French-speaking acting mayors of 3 Flemish towns, said they would not give the Gordel permission to pass trough their territory, unless the organisers would clearly state that political symbols were not welcome. They claimed they could not guarantee public safety if participants in the Gordel would carry political messages.

the funnest Sunday

The Gordel: the funnest Sunday

The organisers of the Gordel refused to comply and the governor of the province of Flemish Brabant said that if the acting mayors failed to do so, he would take all necessary measures to allow the Gordel to proceed as planed. Eventually, the acting mayors backed down a little. Participants who simply walked by would be left alone, but anyone who would stop to stage a political demo, would be arrested.

It was a cold and rainy day last Sunday. Not a very good day to walk around in the countryside, but an excellent day to spend in jail. So some small groups of protesters gathered with their Flemish flags in front of the town hall of Linkebeek: the town of one of the acting mayors who announced demonstrators would be arrested. They were accompanied by hordes of press, even some foreign journalists where eagerly awaiting the battle between the police and the demonstrators. But they were disappointed. Acting mayor Damien Thiéry came out to greet the demonstrators. They shook hands and had a little chat. Then, the demonstrators continued their hike through the rain. The police didn’t intervene.

This is how wars are fought today in Belgium: with strong words and some nails. Despite the rain, the sabotage and the political tensions, 58 049 Flemings enjoyed a day in the towns, woods and fields around Brussels. So if you are planning a trip to Europe, there is no reason to miss out on our beautiful historical cities. You won’t need a bullet proof jacket. But don’t forget your raincoat.

And in case you wonder why there are so many acting mayors in the towns around Brussels: stay tuned. That’s a story for another post.