In the seaside town of Ostend, the "Les petits mondes d’Ivy-Rose" toy store, owned by French-speaking Belgian Cédric, has become the target of Flemish nationalists, who harassed the store’s staff and left an inflammatory sticker on the windows, Belgian media RTL Info reports.
The 50-year-old owner runs pop-up toy shops across Belgium, as well as in the city of Ostend, which has been open during the tourist season each summer for the last four years. In the winter months, his store relocates to Brussels. Cédric is originally from the Ardennes, a French and English speaker, but says that he is well integrated with the population of Ostend.
Until recently, the store owner had no issues in the city, being part of the local community and having “easy contact with people.” That changed sometime in July, when three men burst into his shop, shouting in Dutch: “Here we are in Flanders, here we speak Flemish!”
The shop owner was not present at the time. Instead, Cédric’s friend and his mother were subjected to the abuse. The nationalists refused to explain the purpose of the visit to the store and plastered a large yellow and black “Nederlands” sticker on the window of the shop in front of customers.
“Fortunately I wasn’t there because I don’t know how it would have ended,” Cédric said. This was the first time he has received harassment for his maternal language in Flanders. “For four years I have been in Ostend and everyone knows me… I am not bilingual but I make every effort in the world with people who speak Dutch, and then I speak English."
The front-window display of Cédric’s store is translated into Dutch and English. “For me, it is psychological violence and intimidation..,I was a victim of racism, a bit like painting a yellow star on my window,” he lamented.
The sticker was party material from a far-right Dutch-speaking irredentist group– Voorpost. The group wants to unite Flanders and the Netherlands, and promotes ideas relating to ending the “islamisation of our society” and asposes the “great replacement” theory.
When contacted by RTL Info, Bart Vanpachtenbeke, president of Voorpost, said that the group had not been behind the incident. “We do not tolerate personal attacks,” Vanpachtenbeke said.
The sticker used during the discriminatory incident can be purchased online through the group’s website. The group assumes that militants must have purchased the stickers online. Voorpost states that it cannot control how they are used by its members or other radicals. A statement on the store page instructs those who buy the stickers not the stick them on other people's property.
“We 100% support the message of our print, but we are not responsible for its misuse,” Vanpachtenbeke stated.
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Despite being shaken up and feeling intimidated by the event, Cédric does not intend to file a complaint with the police. “If I file a complaint, it will be in French and the police may not appreciate it.”
The shop owner also questioned whether the same incident would have happened in Wallonia. Language is a point of contention for Flemish nationalists, who claim Flemish as an integral part of their culture and society. Wallonia, which is part of the Francophone, does not have as many active groups which promote linguistic chauvinism.
“No Walloon would post ‘Le français d'abord!’ on a Dutch store in the Ardennes,” the owner believes. “For me, it’s a political problem, a playground problem, and a recurring one.” The owner said that he did not want to leave Ostend but regretted that old Belgian societal divides had appeared once again.
This week, a similar incident occurred during the Union Saint-Gilloise match in Leuven, where street signs in French around the stadium were covered by stickers saying "In Flanders, only Dutch".