Serge Régnier (as some readers may remember) is a 47-year old Belgian with three wives and thirty children. In 1986 Régnier married Christine Wuest (who is now 38). They have fifteen children, between 19 years and 11 months old. A couple of years later, Christine’s homeless sister Karine Wuest (now 35 years old) came to live with the couple. Soon she fell in love with Serge. Christine consented in her husband taking her sister as a second wife. Serge and Karine have six children, between 10 years and 10 months old.
All that time, Serge had been meeting his former girlfriend Judith De Leenheer (now 38 years old). When Judith’s marriage broke up – which was not altogether surprising since all her children were Serge’s rather than her husband’s – Serge asked his two wives whether they would mind taking her in. They did not mind. Serge and Judith have nine children, between 18 years and 10 months old. They all live together in Serge’s house in Marcinelle, a town in Wallonia, the French-speaking South of Belgium.
The Belgians call Régnier, a stocky, balding man with a fringe of beard, the “Marcinelle bull.” Non-Belgians wonder perhaps how he provides for his large family. Here is the answer.
Régnier applied for and received the status of an invalid from Wallonia's generous welfare authorities. He consequently receives a welfare check of over €1,000 a month. His three wives are all unemployed. Hence, they each get €800 in unemployment benefits. On top of this the family receives €4,000 in child allowances. This makes a grand total of more than €7,400 a month ($9,700 or £4,960) – all of it provided by Belgium’s taxpayers. All the money matters in the household are taken care of by Serge. His wives are only interested in children. They have told the press that they each hope to have another baby in 2007.
Ten years ago Belgium was shocked by the paedophile murders of Marc Dutroux, another Walloon. Dutroux also lived in Marcinelle. He had installed dungeons in his cellar, where for many months he imprisoned little girls whom he had abducted, and kept them as his sex slaves. Dutroux raped and finally murdered them. He, too, had been recognized as an invalid. The welfare officers granted him, and his wife and accomplice Michelle Martin, to cash a monthly check of €2,000 in welfare benefits. The reason why Dutroux was granted invalid status was because he was said to have suffered psychological damage during a previous spell in prison (for raping underage girls and boys and torturing an elderly lady), which made it impossible for him to work for a living. I do not know why Serge Régnier is unable to work for a living, but it certainly is not a lack of virility.
Indeed, last Tuesday the Belgian paper Gazet van Antwerpen wrote that there are marital problems in the Régnier household. His three wives complain that their husband is often away from home, while they do not know where he is. They suspect there is a fourth woman. “We are partners, friends. There is no jealousy here, at least not between us three,” they told the paper. But while four is a marriage, five is a crowd. The wives are also increasingly frustrated because Serge does not seem prepared to give them another baby yet. “Judith, Karine and I each want three more children,” says Christine. “So did Serge a few months ago, but suddenly no more. What must we make of that?” she asks. Régnier, however, denies he is cheating on his wives. “They will get their children, but not for the moment,” he says.
The wives are also cross because Régnier often withdraws into his room, locking the door. He is the only one to have a room of his own in the house. There he has a television set and a small fridge. The women complain he sits there watching football and drinking beer, while they cook, wash and iron and take care of the children. Régnier ignores their complaints, and tells the journalist: “I do not know whether you are married but if you have one wife you can imagine what it is like to have three.”
A story like Régnier’s is probably only possible in the south of Belgium, where a man can spend his life in idleness while the taxpayers provide him with enough income to sustain three women and thirty children. Wallonia is a Socialist stronghold which is subsidized by Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country. Belgium is a country in which any major government decision requires approval in both Flanders and Wallonia. The Constitution stipulates that every major change requires a majority in both parts of the country. This has doomed the country to inertia and it has inevitably led to the corruption of Wallonia.
The utterly corrupt Parti Socialiste, although only of no importance in Flanders, has become the most influential party in Belgian politics; as the largest party in Wallonia, it can obstruct any policy it objects to. Since no government in Belgium is formed without the approval of a majority in both Flanders and Wallonia, the Francophone Socialists have ensured themselves of an almost permanent reign. They proceed to buy voters by promising them a permanent flow of Flemish taxpayers' money to Wallonia.
In Flanders, which has a strong freemarket culture, there is a large political majority to change the present welfare system. The Flemish want to lower taxes and to reform social security to reduce abuse. But Wallonia blocks all reforms and the Walloon Socialist party guarantees voters that, as long as they support the Socialists, money from Flemish taxpayers will keep flowing to the nearly 50% of the Walloons who are employed or subsidized by the government, including “invalids” like Serge Régnier.
In 2006 the 6 million Flemings subsidized the 4 million Walloons at a rate of €11.5 billion (an enormous amount of money compared to the €14 billion which is the U.S.’s annual spending on foreign aid). Among the frustrated Flemings there is a growing call for secession from Belgium. This has begun to worry the Belgian establishment. This became particularly apparent after a hoax television news item last week in which the end of Belgium was announced.
When Caroline De Gruyter, a journalist from the Netherlands, visited Wallonia five years ago she was amazed to meet several families that had been on the dole for three generations and did not have a single relative who was officially employed. The families liked it that way. They all voted for the Socialist Party, because it guaranteed that Flemish money would keep flowing to Wallonia. They described the attitude of Flemish nationalists “who do not want to pay taxes to support the Walloon jobless” as “unsocial behaviour!” One of the things that struck De Gruyter was that they admitted to having no shame. It prompted her to call them “a Community beyond Shame.”