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Belgians grow beards to demand a government

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BRUSSELS — Some are growing beards in revolt. Artists are venting their anger on stage and students will be out in force on Sunday. Their rallying cry? A proper government and — finally — an end to seven months of negotiations mired in recrimination.

For decades, the 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings in Belgium's north and 4.5 million Francophones in the south have grown increasingly apart in a bipolar kingdom that has contained the seeds of division since its inception in 1830.

Politicians are trying to broker a new constitution with increased regional autonomy to reflect that reality. But the work is proving long and hard. For over 220 days, since a June 13 election, the country has been rudderless.

At the Royal Flemish Theater in the heart of Brussels on Friday, actress Marijke Pinoy conveyed how little each side understood of the other.

"Rinnzekete bee bee nnz krr muuuu," she said, arms flailing and eyes flashing as she rehearsed her performance of Kurt Schwitters' Dadaist poem in an non-existent language.

"This is to show the politicians that they have to stop with their blah blah blah," she said once her adrenaline had dropped.

She was host to a slew of Flemish artists, and some Francophone, to promote solidarity and reject nationalism in the show "Not in our Name." Such was demand for tickets, the 500-seat theater could have sold out several times over, organizers said.

"We have to show we are a Belgium which can do more than just quarrel," Pinoy said.

That quarreling is taking a toll on the country.

The caretaker government only has a limited remit and, as the euro currency tries to weather a deepening crisis, international investors are looking unkindly at the stalemate that hamstrings the nation and prevents it from taking decisive action.

Belgium's borrowing costs on financial markets have spiked in recent weeks, after a rating agency warned last month that the lack of a functioning government could hurt the country's ability to cut costs and repay its debt.

On top of the budgetary cost of borrowing, people also feel the time has come for an end to the standoff, the intricacies of which, it is fair to say, next to no one understands.

Public unease had been simmering for weeks. But it really caught the imagination last week when Francophone actor Benoit Poelvoorde called on all Belgian men to join a hair-raising protest.

Poelvoorde, who has appeared in movies including "Coco Before Chanel" and "It Happened Close To You," said, "Let your beard grow to show solidarity."

He launched the initiative with broadcaster Nicolas Buytaers, who felt it was all becoming too much to bear.

"Today they've had enough and they want a solution, they want a government, they want the negotiations to come to an end. So they are demonstrating," Buytaers said.

And the beard thing has caught on.

"It's the very first time as an adult I've actually tried to grow one," said Guido Everaert, 47, who works in a medical lab, where his fuzzy face has earned him some strange looks. "My partner thought it was actually sexy."

There should be fresh beards galore when thousands are expected to march through the center of the capital Sunday heeding a call by five university students.

"We hope that 20,000 or more can give a clear signal," said Felix De Clerck, an organizer and son of the caretaker justice minister. "We welcome everyone who is as sick of it as the others."

Belgians who don't want to walk can join Camping 16, a virtual site on the net where couch potatoes can protest with the click of a mouse and pitch a tent outside the office of the prime minister.

By Friday, organizers said that 135,730 people had joined their "small nonviolent revolution."

For some it is all a bit too gratuitous. They argue that fundamental constitutional revision is worth the time.

Daphne Dumery of the Flemish nationalist N-VA, a key negotiator in the talks, called such action "the wrong signal."

"We have to take time to find a balanced agreement. Not just any agreement because we want a government fast," Dumery wrote.

But "fast" does not seem to be an issue here. Anyone who doubts that can click to www.hetwereldrecord.be.

There, a digital clock is ticking down for Belgium to match the world record 289 days of coalition formation of "champion" Iraq in 2009. Belgium as "challenger" stood at 222 days Friday and "Outsider" Ivory coast had 54.