Louisiana disinvited as honored guest to Belgian festival over abortion ban

Louisiana State Capitol
Photo by Travis Gauthier

Louisiana’s invitation as a guest of honor at an upcoming festival in the French-speaking region of Belgium was revoked in light of its abortion ban. 

Many European leaders have condemned the proliferation of abortion bans in the U.S. after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end constitutional protections for abortion rights. All but two European Union member states afford some measure of abortion rights. Abortion has been legal in Belgium, a multinational and historically Catholic state, since 1990. Louisiana has had longstanding cultural ties to Belgium. 

“It is inconceivable for Wallonia to grant the title of guest of honor to a state that does not respect what we consider to be fundamental law. And abortion is a fundamental right,” wrote Elio Di Rupo, minister-president of Wallonia and former prime minister of Belgium. Di Rupo’s message rescinded Louisiana’s invitation as guest of honor to the Fête de Wallonie, the region’s role in the Belgian Revolution. 

Since the letter was addressed directly to Gov. John Bel Edwards, it’s unclear whether the announcement will fully derail a planned delegation to the festival, which was to be led by Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser to highlight the cultural and economic ties between Louisiana and Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking region. 

Belgium’s francophone press was notified of the rescinded invitation before the governor’s office, according to sources close to the trip’s organizers. Di Rupo has also informed the Belgian Ambassador in Washington, D.C., and the American Ambassador in Brussels of his decision.

“At this time, the lieutenant governor’s office has not received any recent official correspondence regarding this trip,” says Veronica Mosgrove, Nungesser’s communications director. 

The delegation was set to include legislators and representatives from Lafayette Consolidated Government, CODOFIL, which is headquartered in Lafayette, and the state Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.  

The festival is celebrated on the third Sunday of September to commemorate the Walloon community’s victory in the Belgian Revolution of 1830, liberating Belgium from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands’ rule and leading to the creation of the present-day state. The celebration is centered around the city of Namur, one of Lafayette’s sister cities since 1979. 

The selection of musicians, chefs and artists to accompany them had not yet been finalized at the time of cancellation. Activities were to include discussions with the Office of International Affairs of Namur, installation of a Louisiana tourism booth and the laying of a wreath at a cemetery of WWII soldiers. The Battle of the Bulge was fought in the Wallonia region, 40 miles east and southeast of Namur. 

Beginning with its inaugural year, Festival International de Louisiane has hosted many artists from the region. This past year, the Reminders, a duo from Belgium and the U.S., played. Past years have seen the stilt-walkers from Namur, the Gilles de Binche, a group of masked revelers associated with Mardi Gras,and the late jazz singer Maurane. 

Belgium is divided into three administrative regions: Flemish-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and the capital Brussels. Louisiana has had long-standing accords with the French-speaking region since the early days of CODOFIL, bringing teachers and artists to Louisiana and providing scholarships to Louisiana students to study in Belgian universities, most notably in Mons and Liège. 

Because of these bilateral accords, CODOFIL and its J-1 visa program have provided Louisiana schools with hundreds of French teachers over the last 50 years. Many of them are still here today, continuing to contribute to French language and culture in Louisiana. As this new school year begins, there are 23 Belgian teachers, including nine in Louisiana for their first of a maximum of three years on a J-1 visa. 

Belgium is a constitutional monarchy, much like the United Kingdom, with the king as ceremonial head of state. In 1990, when abortion laws were liberalized, then King Baudouin, a staunch Catholic, had himself temporarily declared unable to reign by the Council of Ministers, allowing the government to be declared the head of state as per a provision in the constitution designed for the death or incapacitation of the monarch. 

The law legalizing abortion was ratified without the normally automatic Royal Assent. On April 5, the day after passage, Baudouin was once again declared able to reign until his death in 1993.