They are hanging out the flags round my way. And it's not in celebration, but despair at political failure.
Each day another black, red and gold flag seems to sprout from the window of a house or apartment. I'm tempted, just out of devilment, to stick a black lion rampant on a gold field out of my bedroom window. But the Flemish flag might not go down too well in my French-speaking part of Brussels.
The profusion of flags is a patriotic but also partisan response to the failure of political parties to form a government. It’s now 108 days after the general election.
But this is not some vague expression of frustration but a specific display by French-speakers of loyalty to king and country, amid speculation that Belgium may bust in two. "I haven’t seen any around my way," sniffed a Flemish friend, when I mentioned the flags.
Well, he wouldn't. For in many ways the flags are a protest against the man who is still expected to become prime minister of Belgium. To the flag hangers, Flemish Christian Democrat Yves Leterme represents those who don’t care overmuch about the existence of the country or the rule of the royal family.
He’s the one who dismissed Belgium as "an accident of history" and has questioned whether French-speakers are intellectually capable of learning his language. Given the royal family’s own questionable skills in that direction, it’s not at all polite.
The obvious sticking point between the potential coalition parties is a reform package aimed at devolving more power to the Flemish regional government, giving them more power over health and the courts.
There’s also a side issue of the problem in Flemish towns around Brussels, where some feel not just French-speakers but French political parties are taking over. But for once the devil is not in the detail but in the demonic cultural and linguistic issues lurking behind these particulars.
Belgium is a cosy, friendly country, a good place to live if you don’t want to live life at a breakneck pace. Or in my case, if you want an ideal base to throw yourself in to the hurly burly and retreat from it at decent intervals. But it is a country starkly divided on linguistic and cultural lines, which are far more firmly drawn than in some countries where such divisions have had far more brutal expressions.
It’s partly economic. I wrote some time ago about a survey that purported to show that if Belgium split, Flanders would be one of the richest countries in Europe, French-speaking Wallonia one of the poorest. Crucially, this divide is reflected in the political parties.
Cliches and stereotypes are dangerous generalisations, but it's necessary to refer to them to explain the tensions. Many Flemish see the French either as disdainful one-time aristocrats who are too arrogant and dismissive to learn the language of their fellow countrymen, or as lazy good-for-nothings high on tax subsidies, and trapped in Wallonia, an area that until recently was dominated by a Socialist Party apparently unaware of the economic direction of the last 20 years and allegedly corrupt.
One of my Flemish friends confesses that he finds his Francophone countrymen far more "foreign" than the Brits, like me. It’s probably an arrogant, very English way of seeing it, but to me there is no denying that Belgium can seem like an argument between the more "Anglo-Saxon" Flemish and their French-speaking neighbours. For humour or for approaches to the economy they would tend to look to the UK rather than France.
Two of everything
There’s another big difference, although I am not sure what political impact it has. The Walloons look up to France: they follow its politics more closely than their own, watching French films and reading French books. In return, the French on the whole sneer at their northern neighbours: one guidebook I have begins, "If you want to hear the language of Voltaire spoken in a German accent, go to Belgium."
The Flemish, on the other hand, laugh at Dutch food, drivers and landscape, while maintaining they speak a purer Dutch than their neighbours in the Netherlands.
I must admit I hadn’t clearly seen the political problem, until I saw a think tank make this point in a Guardian article about the divide: Belgium is a federal nation without federal-level parties.
In Belgian politics there are two of everything. Socialists. Liberals. Christian Democrats. There’s a Francophone party and a Flemish party. Each with their own leaders and policies.
This is, I think, unique. It’s true in Germany the Bavarian CSU keeps itself proudly separate from the Christian Democrats but the same does not apply to the Social Democrats, Socialists or Greens. In the USA the differences between southern Democrats and their northern colleagues is well-known, but just imagine if they ran different candidates for president.
Unfortunately, the linguistic divide is not a new phenomenon but something that dates back to the country's foundation.
In 1830 the Netherlands ruled here. The linguistically repressed Walloons took their cue from the latest revolution in France and the upper and middle class liberals took to the streets. A provisional government was set up and eventually a kingdom established. One where the French language was the only official one and Flemish peasants accused of a crime couldn’t defend themselves because they couldn’t understand the charges or reply in their own language.
This only really changed in the 1960s, when linguistic liberalism combined with the decline of heavy industry to give Flanders more of a say. In Mr Leterme’s accidental country, the resentment between the two linguistic communities is not a tension that has sprung up over time, the conquest of one over the other was what brought Belgium into being.
An EU protectorate?
So a leader in the Economist touched a raw nerve a few weeks ago urging a “praline divorce”.
Going up a lift in a shopping centre, to do some filming for an unrelated story, a man noticed "BBC" plastered all over our equipment. He wrongly assumed we’d come over from London to film a report on the state of the country. "Filming a story on Belgium? Tell people the Economist is wrong. We will not split," he said.
Perhaps not, but the divide appears to be getting deeper.
Brussels is perhaps the best reason for staying together. Like parents who muddle along because of the children, the recurring question, "But what about Brussels?" may save Belgium. Brussels is at least in theory bilingual and just about works. It certainly wouldn’t be possible to divide. But if the worst comes, it could always be declared an EU protectorate, I suppose.
What is life like in a country with only a caretaker government keeping things ticking over, with no new initiatives and no new directions?
Looking out of my window, it seems fine. There are flags, but no furore. Belgium may one day fall apart, but its lack of governance doesn’t seem to have pushed it over the edge.