Belgium's far right struggles to break through media ban | World News - Hindustan Times
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Belgium's far right struggles to break through media ban

AFP |
May 06, 2024 09:35 AM IST

Belgium's far right struggles to break through media ban

While polling suggests far-right politicians in several European countries will do well in European Union elections next month, in the French-speaking part of Belgium they face a regional media boycott.

Belgium's far right struggles to break through media ban
Belgium's far right struggles to break through media ban

The informal, concerted ban means they are effectively kept off news pages and airwaves in Wallonia.

The media measure is an echo of a "cordon sanitaire" employed by mainstream political parties that refuse to have anything to do with the extreme right.

The systematic snub, say experts, explains why Walloon far-right politicians are totally marginalised, unlike their counterparts in Flanders, the Flemish Dutch-speaking northern region of Belgium.

There, local media give airtime to far-right politicians just as they do to politicians from any other party.

Their approach is akin to that of the neighbouring Netherlands, where the extreme-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders won a surprise victory in national elections in November.

With the far right making inroads into turf hitherto occupied by more centrist parties, it is not impossible that the Walloon "cordon sanitaire" could evaporate.

That is especially pertinent since Belgium holds its own national elections on June 9 simultaneously with the EU-wide elections for the European Parliament.

The "cordon sanitaire" for the mainstream political parties applies at all levels local, regional and national.

Yet it is only in Wallonia that the media have adopted the same practice.

"Reporters don't hold out their microphones to them, which prevents the extreme-right parties from being heard in prime time and becoming known to the majority of the Walloons," said Francois Debras, a political science professor at Liege University, in the French-speaking part of Belgium.

The political blockade first appeared regionally in 1988, when an extreme-right Flemish party, Vlaams Blok, made headway in local elections, according to CRISP, a non-governmental research association on social and political issues.

The boycott spread to the whole of Belgium's political landscape in the 1990s, after Vlaams Blok's seats in the federal parliament jumped from two to 12, and a far-right National Front party emerged in Wallonia.

Belgium's mainstream groups say the anti-immigration stance of those two parties violates the European Convention on Human Rights, an argument that forms the basis for the systemic snub.

Over the past three decades, Wallonia's far right have only managed to hold two seats in Belgium's lower house of parliament.

The National Front won one seat in 1991 and the People's Party won another in 2010.

Both Eurosceptic groups have since been dissolved.

Analysts say the nativist-nationalist rhetoric used by the far right has less traction in the French-speaking part of Belgium than it does in the Dutch-speaking part, or in neighbouring France or the Netherlands.

That, they say, is because the Walloon identity itself is hard to pin down.

"If it exists, it defines itself more in reaction to others," particularly the Flemish faction agitating for regional independence, said Debras.

Raoul Hedebouw, head of the left-wing Workers' Party of Belgium, offered another view.

Walloon Belgians, he said, felt bound together and were represented by politicians who listened to them.

In Wallonia, trade unions organise workshops and training courses, for instance on citizenship, which reinforces opposition to the far right.

"The existence of these bodies limits the influence of racist or extremist discourse... that counters the sense of lack of societal belonging and inclusion," said Debras.

But Belgium's far right has changed since the last national elections in 2019.

A new party, Chez Nous , was formed in 2021 with the backing of Vlaams Belang Vlaams Blok's name after a 2004 rebrand and France's far-right National Rally, whose figurehead is Marine Le Pen.

It presents itself as Wallonia's "only patriotic party", with the intention of staking out a place in that region.

Chez Nous's support has not yet been tested in voter surveys, and it is not participating in the EU elections, unlike Vlaams Belang.

But it wants to enter the regional Walloon parliament and, more importantly, the federal chamber, where even a single seat would give it access to political funding.

"A federal member of parliament is our initial goal. We'll have five years after that to grow," a Chez Nous representative for the Liege area, Noa Pozzi, told AFP.

To get around the local media boycott, the party has turned to social media, where its posts are already garnering as much attention as those of a mainstream liberal party, according to data from a monitoring institute.

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This article was generated from an automated news agency feed without modifications to text.

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