Hand gestures preferred to French in Menen

When it comes to forcing French-speakers to use Flemish, the only official language of Flanders, the imagination of certain Flemish politicians appears to be boundless.

In Menen, in the province of West Flanders, right on the border with France, sharing its main thoroughfare with the French municipality Halluin, the mayor has ordered her administrative staff to make use of pictograms or, failing that, hand gestures to prevent French speakers from, well, speaking French.

 

The small, proudly Flemish border town of 32,500 boasts 2,700 foreign-born inhabitants, including 1,617 French and French-speaking residents. Dutch is spoken by over half of the population, but French is also used by nearly half on a daily basis. One third of the population, retailers in general, are considered to be bilingual.

 

The local council (run by a CD&V, N-VA and VLD coalition) has just decided how to apply the measure, a first in Flanders. The spokesman for Martine Fournier (CD&V), the mayor of the town, explained that the decision stemmed from the difficulties encountered by council workers in applying the linguistic laws of 1966. “The workers asked us how they could help citizens who, at the counter, couldn’t understand one word of Dutch and to whom they could only speak in Dutch. In the lobby of the town hall, the majority of people you come in contact with can’t speak any Dutch at all. We needed to establish strict rules to stop them from speaking in French and bring an end to the Frenchification of the municipality,” he said.

 

So what was the three-way solution devised to compel francophone citizens to speak in the language of the region? Silence, pictograms and gestures. From now on, civil servants and officials – many of whom are bilingual anyway – will no longer be able to come to the aid of immigrants whose mother tongue not Dutch, by using a few words of French to help them with their administrative activities.

 

French permitted in emergencies

They will revert to pictograms and hand gestures in an attempt to make themselves understood. Except, thank goodness, in extreme cases, such as a medical emergency, where French will be permitted on a one-off basis. But the list of exceptions will be severely limited.

 

Ludicrous? That is a word likely to be used fairly often by non-Dutch-speaking residents, some of whom will doubtless react by eventually losing their cool and sense of humor. But the council appears to have thought of everything, providing anger prevention training to civil servants expecting to bear the brunt of irritated reactions from francophones.

 

The initiative has not been criticized by the mayor’s party. As far as the CD&V is concerned, the Flemish language must be used in interaction between citizens and administrators in the north: “We have to implement tools to avoid further Frenchification.”

 

Unsurprisingly, Geert Bourgeois, Flemish minister of integration (N-VA), has described the measure as “excellent”, praising the logic of it while pointing out that in Lille, people are not served in Dutch.

 

Olivier De Boel, leader of the opposition group (SP.A-Groen), was unable to hide his surprise: “It’s a load of nonsense. Of course, there are numerous people who don’t speak our language. But aside from basic courtesy, you have to show a bit of flexibility. The lines at the town hall are already pretty long. And this new method of communication isn’t going to make them any shorter.”

 

DIRK VANOVERBEKE

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One Response to Hand gestures preferred to French in Menen

  1. Paul says:

    I’ve lived in the United States. Did I ever attempt to speak Dutch or, heavens forbid, French there in a public office? No, of course not.
    I’ve lived in Germany. Did I ever try to speak English, or Dutch, or even French there in a government office? Nein, naturlich nicht!
    I live in the Netherlands, during the week. Do I impose French upon the Dutch? Of course not.
    When I travel through France, or Spain, do I impose a foreign language upon the local people? Of courserous not!
    The French appear to be unique in the world! That’s why they are …French!
    So sorry but the truth has its rights, even in a French-language newpaper which appears to pride itself upon systematically propagating the only valid view: the Francophone view.
    Respectfully,
    A Belgian

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