Belgium’s new French-speaking prime minister promised his country’s Dutch-speaking majority that he would get better at speaking their language, in an attempt to unify the country after the country’s record parliamentary impasse of 541 days.
Elio Di Rupo said in his opening speech at parliament, a day after Belgium’s new government was sworn in, that he would travel through Dutch-speaking Flanders to get to know the northern half of the nation better.
Di Rupo, 60, advanced his professional and political career among the 4.5 million French-speakers in the southern region of Wallonia. He had only required elementary Dutch spoken by the country’s 6.5 million Flemish in the north.
“I’m asking for a bit of patience and understanding,” said Di Rupo, the first prime minister from Wallonia in almost 40 yearsHe has a huge task ahead to win the hearts, if not minds, of the Flemings by finally speaking their language fluently.
Since 1974, all prime ministers have come from Flanders or bilingual Brussels, and Flemish prime ministers have always been able to express themselves in French.
“The leader of a government who finds it difficult to speak the majority language has a problem,” said outgoing prime minister Yves Leterme, a Dutch-speaker whose French was almost flawless.
The Flemish nationalist N-VA party, also pounced on his performance. Making such a commitment “is the least thing he could do in a nation where Flemings are in the majority,” N-VA legislator Jan Jambon told VRT network. He said Di Rupo had already made such a pledge early in the negotiations one year ago. “I hope that this time, he will do it.”
Historically, French has dominated the nation, from the royal palace to Belgium’s factories. But in the past century Dutch clawed its way into the leading language. It is difficult for many Flemings to be ruled by someone who does not speak their language fluently.
Parliamentary voting areas end at the linguistic border which slices Belgiumin half , so Di Rupo will rule more than 11 million Belgians without winning a single vote in Flanders. His coalition of socialists, liberals and Christian democrats of 13 ministers and six state secretaries has 10 Dutch-speakers and nine Francophones.
“He has to take a bow towards Flanders, but it does not detract from the fact that the bill for the programme will have to be paid” by Flemings, said Gerold Annemans of the Flemish Interest separatist party.
Even though Flanders is only about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from his doorstep in Mons, he said that after all these years, there still was quite a bit to discover.
“I will visit Flemish families, companies and associations. We will get to know each other better and it rejoices me,” he said.