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Language Dispute Unresolved : King Accepts Resignation of Belgian Government

October 20, 1987|United Press International

BRUSSELS — King Baudouin I on Monday accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Wilfried Martens' two-year-old Christian Democrat-Liberal coalition government because of a language dispute, a palace announcement said.

The king also asked Martens to form a new government that would prepare a revision of the constitution and any "urgent bills needed for the good functioning of the state," the announcement said.

Until the new Cabinet is sworn in, the present government, which took office in November 1985, will handle pending affairs.

The king's request means that as soon as a bill for revision of the constitution is approved by Parliament, new elections must be called within 40 days. They will probably be held next spring, political sources said.

The revision of the constitution would extend the autonomy of the two language regions--the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south--on economic, cultural and environmental matters, officials said.

Martens offered his Cabinet's resignation to the king Thursday after a split developed over a longstanding linguistic dispute between Flemish and French-speaking coalition partners.

The king had postponed a decision on whether to accept the resignation pending consultations with political leaders. In the meantime, Martens tried to heal the rift during extensive weekend talks with his top ministers, but political sources said his efforts failed late Sunday.

The dispute centered on the status of Jose Happart, the French-speaking mayor of Fourons village, a Flemish enclave of 4,500 inhabitants in the French-speaking province of Liege.

In the 1982 municipal elections, Happart's party won a majority in the Fourons village council with a program demanding the return of the village to the Liege province to which it belonged before the language frontier between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities was fixed by law in 1962.

Court Ruling

But the Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, ruled last year that Happart could not be mayor of Fourons because of his inability or refusal to speak Dutch, the official language in a village in the Flemish region.

After the ruling, Happart was deposed as mayor, but his majority in the municipal council reelected him as first alderman, the acting mayor. Authorities several times annulled Happart's election as first alderman, and each time the municipal council reelected him.

Martens' own Flemish Christian Democrats had demanded an immediate end to what has became known as the "Fourons merry-go-round."

Their French-speaking counterparts rejected the definitive dismissal of Happart as long as Parliament had not enacted a law settling the status of officials in towns with inhabitants belonging to both language groups.

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