We’re all back to work now, the Xmas and end-of-year holiday period is definitively passed, so it’s time once again to belly up to those nasty problems still leftover from 2010. For Europe, that means in the first instance the sovereign debt crisis, which now has a certain additional player, namely Belgium, by some accounts on a one-way trip to default city. For its debts are high – roughly equal, in fact, to national GDP – and there are no responsible adults around to do something about them. There haven’t been any of those since last June, for the country has been without a proper government since the elections then, and just recently set a new West European record for time spent in a government-less regime. Dr. Doom, for one, is not pleased:
. . . wait a sec – look, I’m actually not ready to deal with such issues! Please allow me here instead to join so many Belgians, both French- and Dutch-speaking, in just letting my mind fly very, very far away from any thoughts of state bankruptcy, to the refuge of young feminine beauty. Yes, as so many national media outlets were there to report, Justine de Jonckheere (below, and more pictures here) was chosen last Sunday as Miss Belgium 2011.
Quite apart from the event’s intrinsic appeal, the Miss Belgium pageant is certainly a tonic in these times because of its sheer status as one Belgian national institution that has not been ripped into separate French- and Dutch-speaking halves. Indeed, as La Libre Belgique points out, Sunday evening’s event, broadcast out of the casino in the sea-side (and thus Flemish) town of Knokke, was a killer TV-event. It actually attracted more than 1 in 3 of French-speaking viewers, while the Flemish audience-share, at around 15%, was also double what other top shows usually attract on a Sunday evening.
That’s all very nice, but it doesn’t mean that there’s no tension over the pageant’s results, considering so many native Belgians have such an interest in them. You can rest assured that, at any given time during the tournament, approximately half the country is encouraging – whether overtly or covertly – candidates from a French-Belgian (Walloon) background while the other half is rooting for the Dutch-speaking girls. It’s accepted that whoever wins needn’t necessarily know much about how to speak the country’s “other” language yet, but that one of her first duties (and those of the two runners-up) will be to start studying it to get up to a passable level of ability as soon as possible. Still, and as beautiful as she is, this year’s winner must have certainly induced a hard swallow among tournament officials, for her last name in particular – De Jonckheere – is almost at a slap-in-the-face level of Dutchness – most true French-speakers would have very little idea how to pronounce it! Nonetheless, year after year everyone is ready to accept any result – even that of 2008, when the winner was a Czech emigrée to Wallonia who could speak no Dutch at all – as long as the tournament process is, shall we say, free and fair.
The problem, dear readers, is that this year there are troubling signs that the Miss Belgium contest was anything other than that. For one thing, as La Dernière Heure reports, one contestant claims that the fix was in for Ms. De Jonckheere from nearly the beginning. Now, this whistle-blower is Maureen Lazard, a French-speaking contestant from Walloon Brabant, but she still alleges that Justine De Jonckheere had long been the favorite (in French: la chouchoute) of tournament director Darline Devos, for whatever reason, to the extent that everyone knew she was going to win and the selection process would be distorted to make that happen. (“Devos” is really a Dutch name – de vos, the fox, quite appropriate for a beauty-pageant director – so maybe that had something to do with it.)
Sour grapes from a loser – yes, that’s what all that sounds like. But there’s another, more serious allegation, this time reported in a Flemish newspaper, namely the “SHE” supplement to the Gazet van Antwerpen. Keep in mind that Ms. De Jonckheere is practiced in finding loopholes to rules – she’s a law student – and also that a certain weight in the decision about the winner is contributed by votes sent in from the general public as SMSs. SHE magazine cites evidence that the winner invested around €12,000 to buy telephone calling-cards to engineer a flood of incoming SMS votes in her favor. Again, the complaint has been lodged on behalf of – yes – another French-speaking contestant, a certain Lara Binet out of Liège, but the only answer tournament director Devos offers is that there could not have been any fraud, since she had monitoring personnel in place as votes were counted.
Sounds lame to me. And anyway: look at Justine’s picture again, at those shifty eyes! I have to conclude that the 2011 Miss Belgium Tournament has been tainted by scandal just when that sort of national institution that can truly draw the interests of the land’s Dutch- and French-speakers together was needed more than ever. There may still be the national football team; there may still be the national armed forces; but otherwise such institutions are falling by the wayside one-by-one, with grave implications for the country’s future and therefore for its solvency.