Language ban at soccer club goes to heart of why Belgium is rethinking itself

GRIMBERGEN, Belgium (AP) — The KFC Strombeek soccer club is on notice not to coach in French — only Dutch. Word that youth trainers were speaking French to some of the kids triggered a petition demanding a ban on French coaching in this town in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

Mayor Marleen Mertens will soon officially tell KFC Strombeek's management that there'll be no more talk by coaches of "le ballon" — French for the ball — only of "de bal," the Dutch word. "If you join a club in England, you speak English, no?" she says.

KFC Strombeek is a microcosm of Belgium where language spats can have a paralyzing effect — and linguistic conflict trumps pretty much everything in this country of 6.5 million Dutch and 4 million Francophones. If the plight of the amateur soccer club near Brussels looks like an own-goal for tolerance, it is also an instructive clue into why Belgium still has no government 67 days after general elections.

Since the June 13 elections, government formation talks by seven political parties, each split into Dutch and French-language camps, have been stalemated.

Those talks restart Saturday. Past practice indicates the negotiations could still drag on much longer. The 2007 government formation talks lasted six months.

Belgium, with its awkward mix of French and Dutch speakers, is rethinking itself and stuck at a crossroads. Since 1970, its constitution has been amended five times to weaken Dutch and French-speakers' union, forced upon them by their neighbors in 1830.

Power has shifted from the central government to Dutch-speaking Flanders, Francophone Wallonia and officially bilingual, but largely French-speaking, Brussels. Just about everything — from politics to broadcasters to boy scouts and voting ballots — comes in Dutch- and French-speaking versions here.

Walloons and Flemings have self-rule in cultural matters, urban development, environment, agriculture, employment, energy, culture, sports and research and some other areas.

The winner of the June 13 vote, the New Flemish Alliance, wants to go further and advocates an orderly breakup of Belgium arguing Dutch and French speakers have become so estranged, they better go it alone.

The sixth round of reforms touches on splitting parts of social security, corporate and other taxes, health care and employment policies.

Gutting Belgium was long a dream of the far right in Flanders, the country's economically dominant north, and a nightmare for Wallonia. Now the notion has gone mainstream in Flanders.

It has half the unemployment of and a 25 percent higher per capita income than Wallonia, and Dutch-speakers have long complained they are subsidizing their Francophone neighbors.

Language disputes almost never lead to violence but they stir up passions here.

At KFC Strombeek, Christian Donneux, the club's volunteer president, says his club will obey the no-coaching-in French ban, but the dispute has left him bewildered.

Francophones account for about 10 percent of Grimbergen's population. "We are a sports club, not a political party," says Donneux, a Dutch-speaker who is perfectly bilingual and has a medical practice.

"Many of my patients here in Grimbergen are Francophones. Am I supposed to send them away?"

A little distance away, Robert Timmermans — the man behind the No-French-Here petition — watched a training session of Francophone youths, who come from nearby Brussels.

"They must be coached in Dutch," he said. "This is our soccer field. (Dutch-speakers) paid for it. It is our tax money. Grimbergen is a Dutch-speaking town.'"