The Belgians are divided between two main groups, the Walloons , French-speakers who account for around forty percent of the population, and the Flemish , or Dutch speakers, who form about sixty percent, out of a total population of some ten million.
The Flemish-French language divide has troubled the country for decades, its historical significance rooted in deep class and economic divisions. Prosperity has shifted back and forth between the two communities over the centuries: in medieval times Flanders grew rich on its textile trade; later Wallonia developed mining and steel industries. However, Francophones have always dominated the aristocracy, and, since the Middle Ages, the middle classes as well. The setting-up of the Belgian state in 1830 crystallized this antagonism, with the final arrangements favouring the French-speakers. French became the official language, Flemish was banned in schools (the Belgian Civil Code was only translated into Flemish in 1961), and the industries of Wallonia were regarded as pre-eminent. Nowadays, however, Flanders is the industrial powerhouse of Belgium, and the heavy industries of Wallonia are in decline, an economic change of fortunes which has made the Flemish-speakers more assertive in their demands for linguistic and cultural parity. However, Flemish "parity" is often perceived as "domination" by Walloons.
In recognition of the differences, the Language Frontier between the two groups - effectively cutting the country in half, west to east - was drawn in 1962. This did not, however, improve relations and, in 1980, the constitution was redrawn on a federal basis, with three separate communities - the Flemish North, the Walloon South and the German-speaking east around the towns of Eupen and Malmédy - responsible for their own cultural and social affairs and education. At the same time, Belgium was simultaneously divided into three regions - the Flemish North, the Walloon South and Brussels (which is officially bilingual, although a majority of its population is French-speaking), with each regional authority dealing with matters like economic development, the environment and employment.
Although the niceties of this partition have calmed troubled waters, in bilingual Brussels and at national government level the division between Flemish and French speakers still influences many aspects of working and social life. Schools, political parties, literature and culture are all segregated along linguistic lines leading to a set of complex regulations which can verge on the absurd. Government press conferences, for example, must have questions and answers repeated in both languages. Across Belgium as a whole, bitterness about the economy, unemployment and the government smolders within (or seeks an outlet through) the framework of this linguistic division, and individual neighbourhoods can be paralyzed by language disputes. The communities of Fourons/Voeren, for instance, a largely French-speaking collection of villages in Flemish Limburg, almost brought down the government in the mid-Eighties when the Francophone mayor, Jose Happart, refused to take the Flemish language exam required of all Limburg officials. Dismissed, he stood again and was re-elected, prompting the prime minister at the time, Wilfred Martens, to offer his own resignation. The Fourons affair was symptomatic of the obstinacy that besets the country to this day. Jose Happart could probably have passed the exam easily - indeed rumour has it that he is fluent in Flemish - but he simply chose not to submit, giving succour to the political extremists on both sides - namely the Vlaams Blok on the Flemish side, and, for the French-speakers, the Front des Francophones (FDF).
The casual visitor to Belgium will rarely get a sniff of these bilingual tensions. Although it's probably better to speak English rather than Flemish or French in the "wrong" part of Belgium, if you make a mistake the worst you'll get is a look of glazed indifference