Belgium's unlikely patriots: Flemish pop stars

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The demise of Belgium sometimes looks inevitable.

Intractable differences between Flemish- and French-speakers have paralyzed the national government and Flemish voters are increasingly turning to secessionist politicians intent on tearing the little kingdom apart.

So a political uproar was to be expected when Flanders’ best-loved pop group decided to buck the separatist trend.

Clouseau’s new single is the rousing "Long Live Belgium," which urges Flemings and Walloons to live together with “a single passion and a single dream” in “one big union.”

“Pure propaganda,” fumed Geert Bourgeois, the nationalist deputy leader of Flanders’ regional government. “They are calling for more misgovernment, because Belgium just doesn’t work any more.”

“Flemings and Walloons together on the same side? What planet are these guys living on?” asked the far-right Flemish Interest party.

The controversy seems to have done Clouseau little harm. A day after its release, the group's catchy patriotic ditty stormed into the Belgian iTunes top 10 alongside the Black Eyed Peas and the Pussycat Dolls. It peaked at number 3 on the Flemish charts.

The group’s first live performance of “Leve Belgie” at the end of an international athletics meet in Brussels last month brought a roar of appreciation from the crowd of 50,000. The cheers rivaled those for Jamaican sprint superstar Usain Bolt.

Fronted by brothers Koen and Kris Wauters, Clouseau have been scoring hits in Flanders with their Dutch-language pop since the 1980s. Their albums are sure-fire No. 1s and routinely sell out the region’s biggest venues.

The song is something of a risk for the Wauters brothers who, after hits like “You are the most beautiful,” “Passion” and “Eye contact,” were not exactly known for their hard-hitting political lyrics.

“We’re musicians not politicians,” says Kris on the band’s website. “But we’d feel terrible if Belgium split up. I’ve been a Belgian all my life and I want to keep it that way.”

Are they worried about alienating Flemish fans?

“Why? It would be harder to find people more Flemish than us,” said Koen. “We are proud Flemings, but also Belgians. I don’t think one excludes the other.”

The release of “Leve Belgie” comes three months after parties advocating Flemish independence scored a total of 36.4 percent in elections to the regional parliament.

Support for the nationalists has grown since disputes over sharing out finances and special voting rights for French-speakers living in Flemish territory around Brussels led to a nine-month government crisis in 2007-2008 that convinced many that the kingdom is doomed.

Catholic Belgium broke away from the mainly Protestant Netherlands in an 1830 revolution. For decades the new kingdom was dominated by a French-speaking elite, but since the 1960s Dutch-speakers who make up about 60 percent of the population have gained the upper hand politically and economically. Claiming the poorer south is a drain on their economy and insisting they have little in common with their Walloon neighbors, Flemish politicians are ever more strident in their demands for more autonomy for their northern region.

A succession of constitutional reforms in recent years has weakened the federal government, devolving authority to regional authorities in Dutch-speaking Flanders, Francophone Wallonia and Brussels, the officially bilingual capital. For many in Flanders, independence is the logical next step.

Flemish politicians willing to speak up for Belgian unity are an increasingly rare breed, but they have taken heart from Clouseau’s stand.

“This shows that nationalism is dying among young Flemings,” said Herman de Croo, a former speaker of the national parliament.

Although they took their name from the bungling French detective from “The Pink Panther,” Flanders’ premier pop idols are barely known in Belgium’s French-speaking south. However the francophone press has now taken up their case.

“Flanders does have several free-spirited artists who are committed to tolerance, living together and dialogue,” Beatrice Delveaux, editor-in-chief of the daily Le Soir, assured her readers. “Long live this generation of Flemings without hang ups.”

Judging by online comments, Flemish opinion appears divided. Sales of the group’s new album will be the real indicator of any impact on Clouseau’s fan base.

At least the brothers are likely to fare better than the last musical performer to provoke political clamor in Belgium. In 2007, a television reporter asked Prime Minister-elect Yves Leterme to sing the national anthem. He got through several lines of “La Marseillaise,” before the reporter informed him it was the French anthem.

A botched bank bailout forced the collapse of Leterme’s government in December 2008. He is now Belgium’s foreign minister.