Belgium's "War of the Worlds"

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The news flash came right after the evening news on Belgian state television Wednesday: the Flemish Parliament had voted for Flanders' secession from the Kingdom of Belgium. Over the next hour and a half, the trusted TV anchors fielded a spectacular special report: They cut to live footage from the Royal Palace, where an emotional crowd had gathered to protest for the survival of their country. A reporter in Kinshasa, capital of the Congo, commented on rumors that King Albert II had fled to the former Belgian colony. A crowd waved Flemish flags behind the live reporter at the Flemish Parliament. The ring road around the capital, Brussels, was blocked, NATO headquarters on red alert, and police controls thrown up along the border between Flemish-speaking and French-speaking regions. A parade of prominent politicians and public figures opined on the grave development, and there was even a report of julbilation among Catalans keen to separate their region from Spain.

And it was all fiction, the culmination of two years of secret planning by television journalist Philippe Dutilleul and his colleagues at the French-language public broadcaster. The ensuing panic didn't quite approach that created by Orson Welles' War of the Worlds — acknowledged as the model for the Belgian prank — but more than 30,000 phone calls flooded the broadcaster's switchboard, and the channel's website crashed as concerned viewers sought confirmation. The reason for the hubbub, of course, is that although the events described in the fake "news" broadcast had more than a dash of melodrama, they were eminently believable.

Belgian nationality is a recent invention. The country was born in 1830 when the southern, Catholic provinces of the Netherlands broke off with the support of other European powers eager to have a neutral buffer between France and the German principalities. The southern region of the country was for more than a century the richer part, with steel mills, coal mines and the cultural hegemony of the French language; the Flemish spoken in the north was considered little more than a peasant patois. But since the Second World War, Flanders has moved ahead, with higher income, lower unemployment and a more dynamic economy than its southern neighbor. The differences range from social security to birth rates to cultural proclivities, and there are Flemings and Walloons ready to argue about every one of them.

The debates can take on an ugly pettiness: Flanders puts more emphasis on traffic control, for example, so it has installed automatic speed cameras with an assiduity that the more relaxed Walloons haven't matched. Some Flemings fume over the fact that the resulting revenue from speeding tickets is shared with their Walloon neighbors.

Flanders has long pressed for a larger share of federal powers; education, agriculture, and commerce are among the dossiers that are now no longer in national control. A total separation like the so-called "velvet divorce" of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992 is impossible because of Brussels: Belgium's capital is in Flanders, but 85% of its residents speak French. That hasn't stopped radical nationalist groups like the xenophobic Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) from pushing for total separation, which may have contributed to the idea being shunned by other parties.

That lingering and unsavory association of their cause with right-wing radicalism is one reason why more moderate Flemish nationalists are ecstatic about the TV stunt. Frans Crols, managing editor of the Flemish business weekly Trends, was part of a high-profile group of Flemings that last year published a manifesto soberly laying out the case for Flemish independence. "People in Wallonia just put their head in the sand," he says. "It was never discussed in parliament or in French-speaking circles. As a journalist, I think the television show was unethical, but it gave our cause a major marketing boost. Now people in the heart of the Belgian system have to face up to the long-standing problem of Belgium."

So far, it hasn't happened. The president of Wallonia has called the TV event an "unacceptable" breach of journalistic ethics, especially for a state-owned channel. "We didn't intend to create such an emotion, but rather to raise a real question that preoccupies citizens who are attached to Belgium," says Jean-Paul Philippot, the chief administrator of Belgian state television, after having been called on the carpet by the responsible minister. The citizens who are more interested in loosening the ties to Belgium — up to 80% of Flemings, depending on how the question is posed — will be watching to see whether their compatriots have experienced a mere passing shock or a dawning recognition.