LA STAMPA

Coalminer’s Son: New Belgian Leader Caps Unlikely Italian Immigrant Journey

Elio Di Rupo’s arrival as Prime Minister ends more than 500 days of political gridlock in Belgium, which saw threats of the country splitting in two. But Di Rupo, the last of seven children of poor Italian immigrants, has his own dramatic story to tell.

Elio Di Rupo (luc van braekel)
Elio Di Rupo (luc van braekel)
Marco Zatterin

BRUSSELS - Belgium has finally christened its own "American dream" tale, following one family's path from a poor Italian village to the Prime Minister's office in Brussels.

The story is centered in the small village of Morlanwelz, population circa 20,000, in the middle of the Belgian region of Wallonia. There, in one of the sheds assigned to the flux of immigrant worker families, Elio Di Rupo was born. This week, after more than a year of gridlock, Belgium's parliament finally voted in the 60-year-old bow-tied politician as the country's new Prime Minister.

Like thousands of other families, the Di Rupo family had left dire poverty in the central Italian region of Abruzzo in search of work in the coal mines of the province of Hainaut. Di Rupo's father left the village of San Valentino in 1946, and was joined the following year by his wife and their six children. In July 1951, their seventh child, Elio, was born. But tragedy would strike the family only months later.

And yet, on Tuesday, at 3 p.m., Di Rupo, head of Belgium's social-democratic forces, capped an unlikely personal journey and political rise, as he was sworn in by King Albert II. It also ends a nightmare for an entire country, putting an end to a political crisis that had left Belgium without a government for 541 days and saw the secessionist party N-Va's attempt to divide the rich Flemish Region from the poorer Wallonia. Now, with the new coalition and new government, the secessionist party is expected to lose support.

During the ceremony at the royal palace, Di Rupo was wearing his signature bow tie, appearing rather tense as he raised his right hand and took the oath. In that moment he may have been replaying in his mind the endless months of bare-knuckles negotiations among the parties that finally ended with the pact between Socialists, Christian Democrats, and Liberals of the two main regions.

Or Di Rupo's mind may have been drifting back through his own personal story, Italian roots and the political journey that made him Belgium's first Francophone prime minister after 37 years of Flemish leadership.

Di Rupo had a tough childhood. "My mother never learned to read and write," Di Rupo has said. "She barely knows how to sign her name. Seeing her efforts always inspired me."

Siblings sent to orphanage

He never knew his father, who was run over and killed by a truck when the last child was still an infant. The coal miner's wife and mother of seven was left with a pension of 300 francs. If he had died in the mines, it would have been much more.

The woman left three of her children in an orphanage, but she kept Elio. "We didn't eat meat for years," he said. He spent his time between the school and the parish church, where he was an altar boy and helped the priest fill the Communion cup with "a bit of water and a lot of wine."

In a series of interviews collected in a book, Di Rupo admitted that as a child he did not have anything, "but my mother's love." Belgian welfare policies helped him to graduate in Chemistry.

Then, he started a political career. In 1982 he was elected as a town councillor in Mons. Then he became Mayor, Member of the European Parliament, Minister of Education, Deputy Premier and President of Wallonia. In 1994, he became famous in Italy for his refusal to shake hands with a minister of Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet, who had been a member of a neo-fascist party.

Di Rupo has never been involved in any of the many scandals of Belgian politics. He arrived at the top thanks to his patience and rigor. In June 2010, his party obtained 26 seats in the Parliament, just one less than the secessionist Flemish party. He was the obvious candidate for the premiership, but it took time.

Now, he must lead the difficult job of rebuilding the country, following the political crisis and amidst economic troubles.

The miner's son -- who speaks a bit of Italian -- admits that he feels a deep connection with his parents' homeland. "I discovered it only when I was 20. I made a sort of pilgrimage," he recalled. "I went to see where my parents had lived. It was a poor house, but from their window, they had a wonderful view."

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

photo - Luc Van Braekel

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