Belgian town refuses to get up in arms over missiles
As the missile flies, it is 1,400 miles from here to Moscow. And if nuclear war breaks out sometime after 1985, this small and tranquil town in rolling farmland 50 miles south of Brussels could be the first Belgian city to be wiped off the map by a Soviet attack.
Yet the people of Florennes, who will watch 48 new US cruise nuclear missiles begin arriving at an air force base outside town in about two years if the Geneva arms-reduction talks end in failure, appear undisturbed.
''There's a certain resignation among the townspeople,'' concedes Socialist Mayor Eugene Jeanty, whose party strongly opposes deployment. ''It's as if they're saying, 'Nobody asked us for our opinion, so we won't give ours.' ''
The owner of a children's store says: ''What difference does it make where the missiles are deployed. We'd all get it anyway.''
The case of Florennes (population: 10,496) is unique.
At locations across Western Europe, including cities and towns where the rest of NATO's 572 new US cruise and Pershing II missiles are set to be deployed, huge demonstrations have been planned for what many expect to be ''the hot autumn.'' But at Florennes, nothing is scheduled so far.
''Many people here are fatalists,'' says a visibly sad peace activist, Marc Solbreux, head of the Committee for the Struggle to Safeguard the Florennes Region, adding that Belgium's most important antimissile demonstration this year will be held in Brussels (on Oct. 23), and not in Florennes.
Pressed by Solbreux's committee, the town relented to hold a referendum in June 1982 to determine precisely how the townspeople felt about nuclear missiles being stationed in their neighborhood. Fewer than half of the eligible voters bothered to turn out, but of those who did, 76 percent said they did not want the weapons.
Even so,''It's difficult to draw any clear conclusion from the referendum,'' says Mayor Jeanty, who would love to say otherwise. ''Not enough expressed their opinion.''
Even the Florennes City Council has shown little inclination to move one way or another on the missile issue. Last month, it approved a resolution against deployment - but only by a slim majority. And in mid-August, it passed an ordinance obliging the police to arrest anyone caught transporting nuclear missiles within city limits - but half of the council members abstained in the voting.
US congressional transcripts made public earlier this summer show that NATO plans to spend $1.2 billion to build six missile sites in five West European countries - the United Kingdom, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Some $42.3 million has been earmarked for Belgium. It is understood that the site will be the Florennes air force base. About 2,500 US citizens, including servicemen and their families, will be stationed at the site.
Even the prospect of new construction business arising from the transformation of the base, or the arrival of the Americans, has failed to arouse the Florennois to excitement (or opposition).
''The Americans will bring their own 'infrastructure' with them,'' the owner of a local clothing store says. ''The restaurant and hotel business may pick up, but nothing else.'' As for new construction contracts, town officials say they will be picked up for the most part by companies much larger than those in the Florennes area.
For the economy of the region, the stationing of the missiles in Florennes ''will mean very little,'' says Mayor Jeanty, noting that unemployment here is well above the national average.
''The Americans will send their children to schools they build for them,'' peace activist Solbreux says. ''They'll buy their food from the PXs they construct. They'll build their own housing. I've even heard that they're planning to build an American hospital here.''
Some townspeople fear the sort of racial trouble that has occurred in other cities in Western Europe where US military personnel have been stationed, particularly in West Germany.
Above all, however, the people of Florennes appear unmoved by the missile issue - even though it may affect them more directly than it will most other people in Western Europe.