BRUSSELS: Rival Dutch- and French-speaking communities in Belgium are at each others’ throats again — this time over the loan of two giant pandas by China to the linguistically divided nation.
“The pandas of discord,” screamed the daily Le Soir yesterday.
“Pandas, a question of national interest,” said La Libre Belgique as the country worried over the long-negotiated and now contentious deal.
The problem is that the rare bears, a reliable draw for visitors, are to be housed in a zoo in French-speaking southern Wallonia, not far from the city of Mons whose last mayor is none other than Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.
And Belgium’s oldest and most well-known zoo, located in the heart of the port city of Antwerp in northern Flanders, is indignant to have lost out to the Pairi Daiza animal park set up a couple of decades ago.
“We should have been able to count on the support of the prime minister,” said Ilse Segers, spokeswoman for the Antwerp Zoo set up in 1843.
“We had a panda couple in the late 1980s and we have the necessary infrastructure.”
The Antwerp Zoo’s indignation turned highly political after a member of the powerful Flemish separatist N-VA party, Zuhal Demir, accused Di Rupo of favouritism to get the animals into the rival park on his side of the language divide.
The French-speaking leader of federal Belgium — made up of Dutch-, French- and German-language regions — was promised the pandas by Premier Li Keqiang while on a visit to China.
Also in China but on a separate tour, the premier of Flanders Kris Peeters said he would contact Di Rupo and ask for an explanation.
The row front-paged the national press and headlined TV and radio news bulletins.