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A matter of language only on the surface

For months, the Belgian community of Linkebeek has proved incapable of installing a mayor. But a visit there shows: At the core of the conflict is a matter of law, of languages – and the heart of Belgium's identity.

A supermarket, a pharmacy, a bank, a hairdresser, and a church, all located around a central square, with the town hall at one end – that's about all there is to see in Linkebeek, a community of barely 5,000 people perched on the southern outskirts of Brussels.

Nothing here suggests that this small, peaceful community on Monday saw a council meeting erupt into protests.

"Linkebeek is Flemish," the protesters shouted.

It takes only a few minutes to drive from a southern suburb of Brussels to Linkebeek. It's raining, the temperatures are hovering just above freezing and the few people walking along the central square want to get to their destination as quickly as possible. Nobody appreciates being kept out in the rain – all the more so if it is to answer questions about the politics of Linkebeek.

"It's about the law, and it's about the principle," that's all three employees of the local bank want to say about this subject that they admit is a sore point in the community.

"Ten years ago, this was just a little Flemish village," one man who refuses to be named explains. "Then, all the French-speaking people came here, and now the French make up 80 percent of the population."

"Linkebeek is close to Brussels, and its cheaper to live here," says another man. "So there's been something like an invasion of French-speaking people."

Flemish-speaking people, like his grandmother, says a young man, who gives his name as 'Yann', are being treated disrespectfully in shops, and addressed in French.

Refusal to appoint majority candidate

It is the sensitivities related to Linkebeek's changing identity that provided the backdrop for Monday's town council meeting.

map of Belgium showing Linkebeek's location

'It's complicated' - an adept description of the relationship of Belgium's different regions

What happened was this: The overwhelming majority of representatives in the local council proposed one man from their party list for mayor. A man, Damien Thiery, who hails from a French-speaking party.

It was not the first time the council nominated Thiery – they already did so some three years ago, after the communal elections which saw Thiery's list win 13 out of 15 seats in the local council.

And yet, back then, the interior minister of Flanders refused to appoint Thiery mayor of Linkebeek.

It's the language, stupid!

"Democracy is not the issue here," says constitutional lawyer Stefan Sottiaux of the University in (Dutch-speaking) Leuven. "We do have Belgian communities situated in Flanders that have a French-speaking mayor."

"The issue here is a constitutional principle which is a cornerstone of our federal state."

That principle holds that in each of Belgium's language areas – Flemish-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and the small German community – all official communication must be in the region's primary language. Only in bilingual Brussels may official documents be published in both French and Flemish.

Belgien Gemeindeamt Linkebeek

Linkebeek's town hall saw hefty protests

"The Flemish see this principle as the only means to protect Flemish," Sottiaux told DW, "because French is such a dominant language. Upperclass Belgians favor French, because historically, Flemish was the language of the peasants. These days, most immigrants also speak French rather than Flemish, and most people who come to Brussels to work for the EU speak French as well."

If the principle of language use in the language regions were to fall, says Sottiaux, "Dutch in Belgium would disappear."

A wrong choice

Damien Thiery, however, violated this princple. In the run-up to local elections in 2012, and as a member of the board of eldermen, Thiery was responsible for sending out the election announcements.

As official documents, they should have gone out in Dutch.

But, in fact, they were sent out in Dutch only to those citizens who are Dutch-speaking according to communal records. Those registered as French-speaking received the documents in French.

None of the citizens complained.

Nevertheless, the move constituted a violation of Belgian language laws.

And so, Belgium's highest administrative court, the State Council, said: The Flemish interior minister was right in refusing to appoint Damien Thiery. In fact, the State Council said so twice.

But that didn't prevent Thiery from calling a new election at the end of last year.

This time, he had the election announcements go out in Dutch only.

Again, Thiery's list won the majority and council members on Monday re-affirmed Thiery's bid for mayor.

A move that not only Flemish radicalists gathered at the town hall considered stubborn and provocative.

For her part, however, the Flemish interior minister Liesbeth Homans is not budging. The official legislative period runs until 2018, she says, and in this period, Thiery will not be mayor because of the violation of the language principle– a new, extraordinary and 'Linkebeek-only' election cannot change that.

Underlying frictions likely to remain

"Ms. Hoemans has behaved correctly," says Christian Behrendt, a constitutional lawyer at the University of Liege and a judge at the State Council, who readily admits that it "may look strange to an outsider that the interior minister would refuse to appoint someone who was basically democratically-elected."

Behrendt says that Thiery, of course, is free to take the matter to the state court once more.

"But I fail to see how the court would rule differently from what it said not even four years ago."

It is a standoff unlikely to be resolved before the next elections in 2018. Then, all legal principles can be expected to be abided by, allowing Damien Thiery to become mayor.

But even then, the underlying frictions in Linkebeek, and, in fact, the rest of the country, will almost certainly continue. "This is Belgium," says Behrendt. "It's pretty complicated."

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