Some six months before the probable renegotiation of powers between Belgium’s French- and Dutch-speaking communities, the RTBF programme raised inter-communal tensions with its “breaking news” style programme on Wednesday evening.
To back up the prime time report, RTBF aired “live” footage of trams blocked at the new “border” and interviewed real-life politicians.
The exercise was only intended as a thought-provoking introduction to a debate on a question which has long divided the two halves of Belgium.
But an overwhelming number of viewers were fooled and the station’s switchboard was jammed by panicked callers.
Political leaders had only one word for the stunt: irresponsible.
“It’s very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste,” Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt’s spokesman told the Belga news agency, recalling the 1938 radio adaptation by Welles of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, which caused widespread chaos, with thousands of Americans believing the Martians had invaded.
Francophone socialist party leader Elio Di Rupo told Le Soir: “At a time when our country is rocked by separatist leanings, it is irresponsible and anti-social to make people believe that the Flemish have voted for independence.”
The fact that the programme was on State-funded television also rankled.
Around six million of Belgium’s 10.5 million people live in the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, 3.5 million in French-speaking Wallonia, and one million in Brussels. Today the country’s richest region, Flanders remains troubled by painful memories from the 19th century when the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, who spoke French whether they were from Wallonia or Flanders, held sway.