We Europeans


Few of the really big purported cases of cultural incompatibility have much to do with race or language. The real catalyst, as in the current crisis in Belgium, is something else.

In the case of Bosnia-Herzogovina, it was not just a matter of different languages and religions. The indifference that soured into violence had more to do with different lifestyles: the Bosniac Muslims are mainly townspeople whereas the Serbs tend to be rural smallholders. So they have few affinities in a number of respects.

Something of the kind applies here in Belgium. The enmity that the Flemish show toward French speakers is rooted in history. The people of what was to become Belgium got on well enough until the 17th and 18th centuries, when a French-speaking elite installed itself in the country’s big cities – not just Brussels, but such traditional centres of the Flemish culture as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.

Superficially, the difference was one of language but, deep down, it was a matter of class. The French elite, which dominated much of life at the creation of the Belgian state, went out of its way to make Flemish speakers feel inferior. Those of the latter who then wanted to get upwardly mobile, and took the trouble to learn French, only made matters worse by turning against the rest.

It was only in 1873 that the Flemish were finally allowed to plead their case in court in their own language. Up to WWI, army orders were only given in French: the stories of Flemish foot soldiers dying because they couldn’t understand the commands of their officers may not be true, but the moral violence inflicted was just as destructive.

Of course money comes into it too but, deep down in terms of both history and human emotions, it’s something much more serious…

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  1. Richard,

    Thank you for this information on the historic background.

    What do you think about the Flemish and Wallon reactions to recent tensions? And about the perspective for the new government to surmount these historic cultural problems?

    Christmas spirit?


  2. The public at large, on both sides of the fence, is either bored or totally apathetic about the mishmash that Belgian politics is and, for that matter, has always been. Unfortunately, being Belgian, whatever that may mean, they have learned to keep their opinions largely to themselves.

    Meanwhile, the political classes – many, but not all of them – continue to make hay. This was evident at a press conference today when the Minister-President of Flanders announced a plan to deepen the Schelde estuary to give access to deeper-draught ships. There was a lot of talk about Flanders and some obligatory references to the Netherlands, but not a single mention of a place called Belgium. Fortunately most people here have a sense of humour so they will pass it off like everything else…

    The new government comprises some of the country’s most eminent pragmatists – a great Belgian quality – so they will find an at least temporary solution. There are also signs of a growing public reluctance to see the knot untied, but a greater devolution of authority to the regions is inevitable (a process that is already well advanced).

    What will happen in the long run is anyone’s guess (I’m not a gambling man). But I suspect it will be another ‘compromis a la belge’.

  3. ????
    At a given moment French was spoken by the aristocracy and business classes throughout the whole of (at least continental) Europe. Just think of in origin German houses of nobility (Hannovers, Nassau’s..) who have French adages in their escutcheon. What sets Belgium apart is that French-speaking people believe this entitles them to special linguistic privileges in Flanders in a day and age where English rules supreme.

    Would you expect French-speaking immigrant residents to demand the official administrative languages of Sint-Petersburg to include French?

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