Discrimination in Flanders

A committee of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations (a high civil servant’s office, to be distinguished from the UN Human Rights Council, which is in large part composed of Third World dictatorships) has issued a report condemning Belgium for its the conduct of its police, the state of its prisons and its treatment of foreigners. Particularly significant is criticism of the Flemish regional government for discrimination against French-speakers.

The report says that certain rights are sometimes limited in Flanders where “knowledge of or learning of Dutch” is made a prerequisite. This can lead to “discrimination against other categories of the population,” e.g. French-speakers and foreigners. The range of infringed rights include access to public housing, purchasing of property, public services such as children’s centers (centres aérés), social benefits and even the right to be elected mayor. Over the past 5 years, the Flemish government has refused to validate the elections of 3 French-speaking mayors in majority French-speaking towns. One of these refusals was motivated by the fact that the mayor had sent mail to his constituents in French.

This is a fairly significant report in that a recognized and neutral international authority has intervened in a longstanding and very bitter Belgo-Belgian dispute. The European Commission has not been as vocal on Flanders as it has with France and the Roma. For my part, I will say two things.

First, Flemish fears of “losing” their national character to Francophones are absurd today. French is no longer a language that threatens to extinguish others (outside of France anyway) and certainly not in Flanders. Quebec exists and continues to exist while having bilingualism at the local level, notably in its biggest city, Montreal. And this, despite the fact that the 10 million French Canadians live in an English-speaking ocean of over 300 million.

Second, I am  little sympathetic to Flemish concerns but mainly because of the hypocritical character of French (of France) criticisms of Flemish attitudes towards the “integration” of French-speakers. The Flems interpret the duty to integrate into the Flemish nation very strongly. The Germans are making similar noises targeting their Muslim minority for allegedly not learning German and France has always placed a huge burden of outright assimilation on its minorities. Given the hysterical reactions to minarets, veils and Halal hamburgers, do I really need to wonder what the reaction would be if an Arabic-speaking mayor were elected in France?

Incidentally, private and campaign advertising, telephone instructions, exams and so on in Spanish are common across the United States of America, something that would never fly in most of Europe. That is one sign of an admirable tolerance on the other side of the Atlantic.

Incidentally, this same UN committee has also filed negative reports on Poland and Hungary’s treatment of the Roma. Some background (and amusing drawings) here.

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One Response to Discrimination in Flanders

  1. Scowspi says:

    The “admirable tolerance” you refer to is largely a function of the US not having an official language. I don’t know if this is unique, but it’s certainly unusual.

    BTW, although Montreal is a de facto bilingual city, in the province of Quebec the only official language is French.

    The issue of language laws and their effect on reality is an interesting and complicated one. For now, I’ll just say that the idea that you can solve social problems via language laws (this seems to be a fairly widespread opinion) doesn’t have much evidence to back it up.

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