24 Jan 2011

Thousands protest at Belgium government impasse

3:21 pm on 24 January 2011

Tens of thousands of Belgians have staged what's been called a "March of Shame" to demand a government after a seven-month impasse between Dutch and French-speaking politicians.

Police say about 34,000 people took part in the march in the capital Brussels.

They were answering a Facebook call by young people from both sides of the country's language divide in the first demonstration of its kind since inconclusive general election in June.

The political impasse reflects a sharpening divide between the Dutch-speaking north and the French-speaking south.

The politicians have been squabbling over plans to give Belgium's different communities more autonomy since the election, which also saw a strong vote for Flemish separatists.

The Dutch speakers - who represent 60% of Belgium's 11 million citizens - want more autonomy for their region, notably in fiscal and social policy.

The French speakers want to limit decentralisation, fearing both a loss of subsidies for their region and the start of a true break-up of the country.

In a protest often laced with humour, a well-known comedian called for a "mussels and fries" revolution and some protesters wore stickers reading "A Beard for Belgium" after a Belgian actor issued a call for men not to shave until the political crisis is resolved.

One of the event's organisers, 23-year-old graphic designer Simon Vandereecken, hailed the march as a success "that exceeded our hopes".