Senay Boztas

The manhunt dividing Belgium

The manhunt dividing Belgium
Armed units search a forest in Flanders, Belgium (Photo by JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
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Belgium's leading virologist is in hiding, holed up with his family in a government safe house. The reason? A right-wing Flemish soldier. Jürgen Conings disappeared from his home on 17 May, leaving behind a booby-trapped car and a series of letters laying out his grievances against 'the regime'. In a goodbye letter to his partner, Conings wrote:

The so-called political elite, joined now by the virologists, are deciding how you and I should live... I don't care whether I die or not, but I will live my last days the way I want.

The muscular 5ft 9in former corporal is now officially a grade-4 terror risk. But that hasn't stopped the emergence of pro-Conings groups in Flanders, the richer, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. A Facebook group called 'I love Jürgen Conings' grew to 50,000 members before being taken down.

As the hunt for Conings intensifies, several hundred protesters have held sympathetic demonstrations. Meanwhile, right-wing politicians have peppered their obligatory condemnations with words of sympathy. Tom van Grieken, president of the far-right Vlaams Belang party which is currently leading the polls in Flanders, told Politico:

The acts Conings wants to commit are reprehensible. But the sense of unease he describes is widespread... The opposition barely came into play in the media during the pandemic.

Last year, almost 16 months after the federal elections, Belgium finally formed a new government of seven political parties. Excluded were the conservative nationalists of the New Flemish Alliance, the largest single party with 24 of the 150 seats. The same was true for fellow right-wingers Vlaams Belang, with 18 seats — leading people like Van Grieken to claim that large groups of voters are effectively being disenfranchised. This seems to be a sentiment that Conings shares and one reason for the surprising public support.

Sympathies may also draw from a tradition of anti-establishment sentiment in this northern region. Georgi Verbeeck, professor of modern history at Leugen and Maastricht universities, suggests that for some people he is an almost archetypal hero: standing up against an overbearing power on behalf of normal Flemish folk:

Flemish nationalism goes back to the end of the 19th century. It’s a movement that is very ideologically diffuse, but in the course of the 20th century a radical and sometimes extremist undercurrent developed, linked to the first and second world war. Not every Flemish person is a nationalist and not every Flemish nationalist is an extremist, but that fierce, anti-establishment sentiment has always existed.

This explains why quite a few people have some sympathy with Jürgen Conings’s supposedly heroic motives, even if most would probably disapprove of violence. He seems like a kind of Robin Hood figure who is managing to stay hidden in the little woodland that Flanders has, standing up to what people call 'the establishment'.

Once, that ‘establishment’ was the French-speaking elite of Wallonia but now the establishment means the experts, the virologists — everyone who limits the freedom of the common man.

Conings's resistance story may also chime with a Flemish sentiment of self-reliance known as 'je-m’en-foustisme' — I’ll go my own way. Flemish people are proud of breaking the rules. 'It’s a sociological-psychological undercurrent that’s stronger in Flanders than in countries like the Netherlands,' explains Verbeeck. 'You think you can do it all better yourself, better than virologists and experts, and someone like Jürgen Conings is the absolute representation of this.'

In recent years bilingualism in French and Dutch has declined, while some groups are more likely to choose English instead as a second language. Some Dutch-language media even framed Conings as a kind of softy ('a ball of muscles with a gingerbread heart', according to one media outlet). Ignaas Devisch, professor in ethics and philosophy at the University of Ghent, notes:

There are at least two narratives going on and they are distant from each other more and more. It has become very hard to understand each other, not only at an individual level but the whole dynamics of two different media and two sides of the political debate. 

Where western commentators lament the breakdown of accepted facts, in Belgium the divide between the Dutch and French media has long entrenched the country's political bubbles. The exclusion of the Dutch-speaking Flemish parties combined with the language barrier has created a truly divided nation. Right-wing movements on the continent tend to rail against Brussels — in Belgium, that means blaming the country itself.