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In a Brussels Suburb, Odd Language Law Equals Tranquility

IN this pleasant bedroom community of mature trees and single-family houses south of Brussels, the village administration's official language is Dutch - even though 80 percent of the 4,600 residents speak French.

To the outsider, Belgium's linguistic legislation can seem more like a velvet-gloved ethnic purification than a reflection of Western-style human rights. But even for Belgians who contest them, the laws are often just the price to pay for domestic tranquility. ``Causing a war [of words] over [language],'' says Linkebeek's mayor Christian Van Eycken, ``would be no better.''

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``We have asked for a revision of our statute, since there's clearly no rhyme between the law and the reality here,'' Mr. Van Eycken says. ``But no one wants to touch an issue that could end up causing a national political crisis, so we try to get used to it.''

Linkebeek's statute as a Dutch-speaking community was established in 1963, when Belgium's first language laws laying down linguistic borders were passed.

Brussels, located inside Dutch-speaking Flanders, was declared bilingual. But the Flemish, worried that the capital's push into outlying communities would lead to a ``gallicization'' of their territory, demanded that the city's suburbs be declared Dutch-speaking. A compromise allowed Linkebeek and five other suburbs a special statute granting ``language facilities'' - official documents and public education in French - for the French-speaking ``minority.''

As a result, most local residents ask to conduct their business with the town in French, while at the same time the town conducts its official business with outside administrations and contractors in Dutch. In the public schools, classes in the ``official'' Dutch language are kept alive by importing Dutch-speaking kids from outside the town - even though any French-speaking children living in adjoining Dutch-only villages are barred from entering Linkebeek's French-language classes.

Linkebeek's young mayor says he would like to hope for something ``better than this middle-ages spirit'' that inhibits his village from evolving to reflect the linguistic reality. But if anything, pressure is on in the other direction: Recently a Belgian senator from Flanders proposed that anyone moving into Flanders be required to show proof of an ability to speak Dutch, and some familial link to the village he wanted to inhabit.

Supporters insist the proposal has an economic motivation, at a time when (usually French-speaking) Brussels bureaucrats are buying houses and pushing up prices in Flemish villages. But as Van Eycken laments, ``That [law] would be the end of the freedom of movement, and isn't that a basic right?''

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