BRUSSELS — The fury over language in the six tiny villages known as the Fourons brought on the national elections in Belgium to be held today, yet language has hardly been a vibrant issue in the campaign.
In a televised debate last week, for example, the moderator asked both Prime Minister Wilfried Martens and his challenger, Socialist leader Guy Spitaels, how they proposed to deal with the Fourons and their French-speaking mayor who refuses to use the Dutch language, or Flemish as people call it here.
Spitaels replied with some platitudes about the need for Belgium's two communities of French speakers and Dutch speakers to respect each other.
"You haven't answered my question," the moderator said, turning to Martens for his reply.
The prime minister, who has the solid look of an avuncular banker, sounded just as vague. He talked about the need to deal with the matter in a nonpartisan way, with all political parties meeting after the election to reach a consensus about what to do. He, too, did not really answer the uncomfortable question.
Language is obviously so sensitive and intractable an issue in Belgium that no national politician wants to touch it, especially in an election campaign. As a result, many Belgians are describing this campaign as one of the dullest in memory. Yet polls show that there is a strong possibility that Martens, who has governed most of the time since 1979, may be turned out of office.
Martens, who comes from Dutch-speaking Flanders but has learned to speak French as well, insists that he will not continue as prime minister unless the center-right coalition of his own Christian Democratic party and its Liberal allies keep a majority. But many analysts believe that the Socialists will make enough gains in the French-speaking Walloon region to prevent that majority.
If so, a center-left coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists would probably have to govern. But Martens has said he would not lead such a coalition, for it would probably turn from some of his austerity policies. Since Spitaels, who comes from Walloon, does not speak Dutch, a possible prime minister could be Willy Claes, a Socialist leader who speaks both languages. Another possibility is Jean-Luc Dehaene, the minister of social affairs who is regarded as a member of the left wing of the Christian Democratic party.
Although the issue of language has been muted, it still creates an undercurrent that touches other issues in the campaign. The Socialists, for example, appear to have attracted votes in Walloon because it is a depressed area that has not done as well economically as Dutch-speaking Flanders in the last decade.
But the Walloon French speakers also know that they are a minority in Belgium, and they obviously feel some festering resentment over dominance by the country's Flemish, or Dutch, speakers. Socialists in Walloon and Brussels have been campaigning with the slogan, "Francophones, show them that we count."
The problem of the Fourons, located southeast of Brussels, has nettled Belgian politics for decades. Under a constitutional compromise reached 25 years ago, the Fourons were assigned to a province of Flanders even though 60% of its 4,200 villagers spoke French and its area was alongside a province of Walloon.
Campaigning on a demand that the villages be assigned to Walloon, Jose Happart, a French-speaking Socialist, has been repeatedly reelected mayor of the Fourons in the last few years even though the national government has continually suspended him for refusing to take a test in Dutch to prove that he can deal with his Flemish provincial government.
When this happened again a couple of months ago, the French-speaking branch of Prime Minister Martens's Christian Democratic party refused to go along with the government, and Martens, having lost his coalition majority, resigned, forcing the new election.