We Europeans

It seems the only thing that can save the federal state of Belgium now is a shift in public opinion or, more precisely, an articulate expression of the views of those who think the ‘community game’ is overplayed. People can always blame the politicians for the situation – they’re fair game everywhere these days – but this only diverts attention from the need to speak up individually.

There are many Belgians in business and public life who think things have already gone too far. But, in the traditional Belgian way, they are keeping their opinions to themselves. Yet there are brave souls in the world of entertainment and the arts – from the popular singer Axelle Red to the ballet choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker – who openly express their impatience with the situation. A lot of them, in fact: a recent survey by a leading Flemish daily of the singers and writers who object to the current trend reads like a national ‘Who’s Who’…

If you look back in history, the subdued resentment of many Flemish people toward their French-speaking compatriots is understandable. From ‘top dogs’ in the Middle Ages, they became the ‘underdogs’. A new French-speaking urban bourgeoisie (little to do with the Walloons) brought with it an unjustified sense of elitism. The rise of smokestack industries in Wallonia helped relegate Flanders to the status of a backwater at the time. It was only in 1873 that Flemish folk were able to defend themselves in court in their own tongue. In WWI Flemish foot soldiers were sent into battle by an officer class that only spoke French. But we are now talking about things that happened a century or more ago…

And, looking to the future, what sense does it make to split up a country that is just about the right size, institutionally and economically (the late Professor Northcote Parkinson set the ideal at about ten million inhabitants)? And this in a European Union that, pace the national politicians, could eventually mutate into a Europe of the Regions?

Belgium has the extraordinary advantage of bringing together the two reservoirs of European creativity, the Germanic and the Romance, and the country is home to many of the European institutions. That of course is part of the problem: foreigners are pushing up real estate prices in the areas around Brussels – and the Flemish, with their new-found self-respect, reject the dilution of their society and culture. But, in doing so, they often fail to make the distinction between Eurocrats, the French-speaking elite, Maghrebians, foreigners generally… and Walloons.

An article in the May 14th edition of the International Herald Tribune comments that “this combination of national pride, rightist politics, language purity and racially tinged opposition to big-city mores and immigration is a classic formula these days in modern
Europe, a kind of non-violent fascism.” The Flemish should set their historical resentment aside. But, as I have found out, there are some middle-aged kleinburger who are as narrow-minded and vindictive as their politicians are mean-spirited and careerist. The same IHT article quotes a Flemish town secretary as saying that “the Flemish people are becoming more self-aware and more decisive. We’ve been ruled long enough by the French people, and our time has come.” But which “French people” is he talking about?

There is no real ethnic element in this issue (genes are pretty mixed on all sides) and the linguistic argument is also pretty shallow. Beneath the surface of differing behavioural traits – the Flemish tend to be more task-oriented, the Walloons more relationship-oriented – the two communities get on pretty well together and have a great deal in common: in particular a proper appreciation of the good things in life that sets them apart from their neighbours, the Dutch and the Germans.

Frequently invaded by unwelcome foreigners in the past, and often stigmatised by the international media today, Belgians understandably keep their heads down. They even pride themselves on their modesty, which is both a strength and a weakness. They should assert their other strengths – quality of life, openness to the rest of the world (but not to their compatriots!), flexibility and decency – and look more positively at the good things that they share.

At least one group properly understands the need to change public opinion. In mid-April a think tank, België anders/Belgique autrement, organised a public debate that was attended by some 250 senior businesspeople and professionals. The group pleads for a return to traditional Belgian pragmatism, common sense and, ultimately, self-interest – and not a minute too soon!

Author :


  1. Some elements I disagree upon:

    1)Suggesting the linguistic/cultural discrimation was mainly one of Flemish bourgeois versus lower class Flemish. The abolition of Dutch in education, court rooms, the administration, etc. was first and foremost decided upon by the Belgian central government.
    2) Suggesting some sort of “turn of the tides” solidarity should apply. When Flanders was worse off, its people left in droves to work in France, the mines of Wallonia. The unemployed walloons from le Hainaut (20% unemployment) are welcome to come work in nearby Kortrijk (6% unemployment). THAT is the main crux, the socio-economic apathy making every sane person wonder where all the money (both Flemish and European) has been going to for all these decades.
    3) We are not talking about things that happened a century ago. My grandparents lived in a still predominantely Flemish Molenbeek. If they dared to order a bread in their local language, they would simply not be granted another look by the local baker. My father was made to read his new year’s letters out in French as the school (in Flanders) refused to have pupils write them in Dutch. The official Dutch version of the Belgian constitution was established in the 1960ies, after the Congo had it’s own consitution. Language laws in hospitals, with personnel from STIB/MIVN, etc. are violated every day as we speak.
    4) Making insinuations about “kleinburgers” is anecdotic. Most Flemish are more of a polyglot on average, on average compete more for jobs with private sector multinationals… Basically what you refer to as “kleinburgerlijk” is about basic respect. As historically in Luxemburg, Strasbourg, Switzerland (Bielle) time and again francophones seem to have a hard time accepting they shoud respect the local administrative language. This becomes very sensitive as the whole language debate is heavily biased from a migratory perspective. Perhaps pointing to some of the existing laws in Canada would go some way in raising some empathy with Belgian French-speakers; I sincerely doubt it though.
    5) Finally, we have the “an ever bigger union is in contradiction of ever smaller member states”. If two regions in a country disagree on just about everything their aggregate number of votes in the EU decision making process will be put to less use than when both regions have a separate set of votes and can then decide on a topical basis which other member state to partner up with (eg Flanders with Holland, la Wallonie with France).

    All of this does not solve the Brussels conundrum, just proving that Belgium makes for a very bad marriage with partners roughing it out for the kids, in this case an erratic trust brat.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Jos. Let me react to the points as you cite them:

    1. It seems you misunderstood my use of the phrase ‘French-speaking compatriots’. I meant the French-speaking elite nationally (which of course would have included the French speakers in Flanders at the time). For me ‘compatriot’ means someone who shares a country – and that country was Belgium.

    2. I agree with you about the apathy (I can tell you a lot about the mentality of the Borinage…).

    3. No, I said that the present-day situation finds its roots in things that happened a long time ago. Their effects are of course still felt today.

    4. I was not making insinuations, I was talking from experience. I have come across ordinary Flemish people (mainly middle-aged, middle-class housewives, as tends to apply in other European countries as well!) who are shockingly intolerant, racist and resistant to any form of accommodation with their French-speaking counterparts. But you are right that most French-speakers are hopeless at other languages, including yours and mine.

    5. Well, we could argue about this for a long time. But your suggestion that the Flemish would happily partner up with Holland and the Walloons with France flies in the face of everything I have learned about this delightful country.

    Geert Hofstede, the leading Dutch authority on cultures, asserts that he has never come across so big a gulf in mentality between two neighbouring countries as between Belgium and Holland. As for the Walloons joining France, when 49 per cent say ‘yes’, they’re really just reacting to events. They don’t really mean it. Even they know they would be the underdogs in such an elitist society.

    As for your last point about Brussels, the brat is growing up and developing a mind of its own…

  3. Richard,

    I still do not agree that it “happened long ago”. Take the entire legal/diplomatic system… well into the 70ies Flemish people were heavily underrepresented (I am talking 20% for 60% of the population) in these circles, which you could trace back directly to factual elements (such as Dutch not being recognized as haveing legal status). Is this “long ago” to you? The median age in Belgium must be around 40… 50% of the current population were already around at that time? Take an undercover camera team and “go Dutch” for a day in Brussels… start by asking for directions at the first MIVB/STIB member of staff you see, have a sandwich, visit your aunt in the hospital… try doing all of this in Dutch… you are in for a treat. Top it off, go to Auderghem, Watermael or maybe Kraainem (in Flanders). Try buying an egg in the Dhelaize of Linkebeek speaking Dutch (Flanders), Richard… see what happens 😉

    Sure you have xenophobic Flems and the more money they have the more they are worried about losing it… still this doesnot concur with more Flems working for multinationals or being (on average) more of a polyglot… maybe you could spin a theory on subsegmentation specific to the Flemish society… (I wouldn’t buy into it, having seen the likes of Maingain, Hapart up close I know where all the extremist votes are off to in Walloonia). Unhappy people in Flanders vote for right wing parties, unhappy people in la wallonie vote for left wing parties… the root of the unhapiness is somewhat different you see (“I want my money back” versus “I want to keep that money”).

    “and resistant to any form of accommodation with their French-speaking counterparts”
    I have stopped speaking French outside of office hours last year; I also stopped my subscription to a Freanch-speaking weekly. Having lived before and still working now in Brussels did it to me (not having lived in France, mind you… just the way “our” capital treats Flems did it to me).In my home town French is spoken by civil servants at the commune, by doctors at the local hospital… this is in “la Flandre profonde”; I have never had the same honour bestowed upon me in officialy bilingual Brussels. Any more accomodation and my children will be treated as my grandparents once were in Molenbeek. I already happened upon a shop nearby where no Dutch was spoken by any of the four (!) present shop-keepers.

    The Flanders teaming up with Holland on a topical basis argument was exactly that, a topical example… pick your strategic and temporary partner based on mutually shared interests. We could team up with la Wallonie when it comes to getting an appelation for abbey beers, with the Dutch when it comes to building dams…. Instead of having to agree on everyhting with the same partner every time. Trust me, we are currently arguing about genetically modified poplars… splitting the Nice treaty votes will make a lot more sensible use of them. Hence I do not understand this “ever bigger union” argument in this context. A place like Flanders is perfectly capable to strike alliances, both yielding more political success and more in line with its interests.

    PS: I admire the Dutch for their economic and intellectual brinkmanship, but that’s a personal opinion

  4. Ans as far as Brussels goes… have a long look at that “city”… an impoverished center and western part, gradually more and more well-off tax-exempt people in the east… the ringway firmly on Flemish soil and areas of new economic growth christalizing around Zaventem/Diegem/Grimbergen/La Hulpe…. that city doesnot stand a change as long as it doesn’t come to terms with its Flemish history (in the eastern part you are confronted with downright hatred, in the western part indifference/ignorance). I’m not saying Flems dont have any issues, but Flanders can go without Brussels (no, catering sanwiches to eurocrats is not my idea of a sound economy); the other way around is a bizzarity. The latter fact is well understood by the French-speaking political parties who are bent on “enlarging” the Brussels “bilingual” area. As I said, this is not wihtout any bias from a migratory perspective. Stormy times ahead, Richard.

  5. If you’re talking about linguistic discrimination, sure, it still happens today. But, as I said at the beginning of this blog, its roots go deep – and that’s the real problem.

    The French language (and some of the culture) infiltrated what was to become Belgium and produced an ‘Us & Them’ mentality, where the Flemish were good enough to do the menial jobs and understand the language of the elite. The process produced a bourgeois segment of society which still thinks it’s a cut better than the rest.

    But, re your last para, let’s not bring genetics into it. Even the Flemish Community Commission of Brussels acknowledges that “it is indeed a linguistic frontier and not an ethnic one.”

    You are right that the younger generations of Flemish people are much more polyglot and, in my experience, open-minded than their elders and than many French-speakers (as I said before, people brought up in French seem to have a natural language impediment for anything else!)

    I find there is often a failure to distinguish between the elements contributing to the present mess: the international community is as responsible for the real-estate jungle in and around Brussels as anyone else, and it would also be helpful to draw some lines between the French-speaking Bruxellois and the Walloons.

    Also it would be misguided to think that the Walloons intend to live off charity for the rest of their lives. There is a lot going on these days in Wallonia, and the region is gradually putting its past – both the days of Cockarill glory and the miseries of the post-mining Borinage – behind it.

    What goes around comes around.

  6. I agree with the fact there is a big semantic confusion about what is a “walloon” among the Flemish. It seems the Flemish are lumping everyone not Flemish as “Walloon”, immigrants, french-speakers (even those of Flemish origins), working-class Walloons together with the French elite… people who actually have nothing in common. They use the word Walen the way the Franks used it, that is, the Germanic people during caesar times used to call all non-Germans “Walla” (foreigners). This is where the word Walloon came from, as well as the word Wales (Welsch), or Valais (Switzerland). This semantic peculiarity makes it easy to blame everything on “Walloons” since they call whoever they blame “Walloons”, the same way the Germans called whoever they blamed “Juden”.

    I can understand the Flemish though. But I understand the walloons as well, since I am one. Belgium was created with the idea that the people inhabiting it should be isolated from the bigger civilisation (French, Dutch, German…) in order to justify the existence of that buffer state: the more different the walloons will feel from the french, and the flemish from the dutch, the less likely they will ask for an annexation. Hence, it is a common idea that Belgium has no history; their cultural and national pride shall be destroyed: this is “belgican” propaganda. The soil that saw the birth of Charles V, Clovis, Pepin le Bref, the country that saw Caesar and Charlemagne writing history, is supposed to pretend having NO history. It backfired with the Flemish who restored their old pride, but they are stupid enough to blame the WALLOONS, who had their pride ruined as well, their original culture mocked and shattered in the name of french cultural centralism. They don’t realize the walloons are as victims as them… I don’t oppose Wallonia being part of France, though.

  7. Another factor to consider is how languages are viewed nowadays.

    The Flemish language used to be the language of the “soil”, of the “volk”, a Germanic language that used to be spoken by hardened conservative peasants.
    The French language used to be the language of litterature, and more importantly, the language of “progressive ideas”, those post-french revolution ideas blamed for all the world ills. It is a known fact the French language lost its prestige.

    Look around in the streets of Maastricht (nederlands), who are likely to speak French? Either immigrants or drug tourists (French/Walloons/Arabs)… I as a Walloon feel like an immigrant in Flanders.
    Thus, the French language is seen in the Low Countries the way Mexican Spanish is seen in the United States: the language of the immigrants, the lower class, the drug dealers, no longer the language of Cervantes, or of Voltaire.

    Meanwhile, the Flemish language became gradually the language of the successful Flemish conservative middle-class… The Flemish culture and the French culture are actually antipodal, incompatible. It’s leftist Progressivism vs volkish Conservatism.

    If you consider those language/class perspective, the “Flemishication” is actually a disguised Gentrification.

    There is a napoleonic twist about what is happening in Halle Vilvoorde… The Frenchification of Flanders via the Rhodes St Genese corridor strategically linking Wallonia to Brussels has its roots in the Walloon city of…Waterloo

  8. There’s even a community today in the French Vosges speaking a Romance dialect and known as the Welche, i.e. ‘those who do not speak German’…

    One of the abusive jokes made by foreigners about the people of this country is “Name Ten Famous Belgians”. I have drawn up a list which not only includes Charles V, Clovis and Pepin le Bref, but also Ambiorix and Charlemagne the Great. After such a long time, it’s difficult to decide who belongs where, but what is now Belgium can stake as good a claim as any other slice of God’s earth. Fortunately, in those days, internal frontiers within Europe didn’t really matter…

  9. Well Richard,

    Last Friday I reported a car accident near Zaventem, dialing the general 100 emergency services umber. Lo and behold, the operator didnot understand a smidgen of Dutch. Honestly, even I wouldn’t have thought things were that bad. At least I can agree on one thing Daniel Kohn Bendit said on the matter: if people refuse to be bilingual, then forget about having bilingual countries.

    As regards the “genetics” as you call it (I simply call it migratory bias… which is the basis of some of the language regulations in regard of migration in Canada), if you fail to acknowledge this for Brussels and the rand, you will not understand what is happening in Lidekerke, Ronse/Renaix, Molenbeek, Brussels-commune… In fact, as early as 2002 Eerdekens (PS, former prsident of the parliamentary committee of nationalisations) said that migration and handing out passports turned Brussels and surroundings more French-speaking than the Flemish will ever undo (an article in Le Matin, if I recall correctly). I believe that having dealt with this matters in a Montréal-style would have meant Brussels would have been more of a linguistically balanced city, which would have taken off some of the current edge. Many in Flanders feel that migration is deliberately used in part as a way of further “securing” Brussels for la francité. It reminds me of the ANC bussing in Xhosa to the naughty insurgent Westkaap province.

    We had a prelude of what this spells for the near future when Mayor Thielemsn of Brussels was temporaliy replaced by Council member Hariche (elegatly incapable of breathing of word of Dutch, a staged provocation to many Flems) who upstaged second in rank Vyghen (bilingual council member), that wheezed off to the MR list in response…

    When Brussels PS big-shots like Mourreaux or Thielemans eventually exit the stage, the real struggle for power can ignite… I doubt the traditional PS clans (Flemish/Italian family names, Le Hainaut and Liège) will enjoy it…

    Migration and its language bias is the key to understanding what you’ll see the next decade on the Brussels political stage. An eye-opener should have been the latest communal elections… I never experienced such a Balkanized clan-based election…

    A worthy setting for Brussels DE… some potemkin façaderie for the EU puppetry and various legislative bodies with marauding getthoes surrounding it, very much like Washington.

    You might have guessed by now I do not particularly like my “home” country.

  10. The genetics issue I was talking about, Jos, (Flemish and Walloons) goes back 1500 years. As for today, I agree, it’s more a matter of migration. I dislike the impact of the overprivileged migrant workers on Brussels as much as you do. Maybe the result will indeed be ‘Brussels DE’. Pity you don’t like your country. It’s a great place, despite all this crap.

  11. Interesting discussion !

    As a french-speaking Liege native, I could argue for very long with mr. Vermeulen, but that would be pointless : things have gone too far (I fear).

    Let’s just say that for every awful injustice flemish people have, we can point out an equally unfair one.

    All I can do is stress out a few of the more relevant facts that outrage french-speaking belgians :
    ./ french-speaking people suffer from childish vexations
    ./ mayors elected cannot take place at the head of their commune because they commited the crime to send convocations in frech to french-speaking people, etc. etc. etc.
    ./ Brussels is squeezed in its boundaries and cannot dream of a single square inch a increase. IM-POS-SI-BLE. Even if a large majority of the inhabitants of some commune want that.
    ./ An influent flemish politician referred to french-speaking compatriots living in flemish ground as “immigrants”. With no more rights than a pakistani or a cambodian.
    ./ Brussels (90% french-speaking – at least) and its surrounding communes are called ” an oil stain”, because being inhabited by french speaking people. How nice.
    ./ the reform of the State, as wished by Flanders, should lead to two completely separated entities (Wallonia and Flanders. Brussels being co-managed by both parts. Belgium becomes a marketing tool for selling itself abroad. That is now a country anymore.

    Historically, Belgium was only really united under the Rule of its french-speaking bourgeoisie.
    People on both sides spoke their regional languages – waloon ones in Wallonia, Flemish ones in Flanders.
    A logical situations would have been for all to go to the unitarian language of all belgians (french) but for various reasons only wallons did.
    And don’t be mistaken, walloon languages have now disappeared in favor of french.
    On the other side, Flemish language survived until now. And not every flemish understand each other !

    And yes it seems that french-speaking people are prone to be poor polyglots. But how many germans do speak three languages ? How many brits do ? How many New Yorkers do ?
    People speaking minority languages (like dutch or swedish) do not have the choice. You cannot change people with a magical wand.

    As I said I could go on like this for miles, and the debate would not be more productive.
    I know that flemish people also have valid grudges. Yes they have been treated badly in the past. Yes, Wallonia is economically poor. Yes, socialism has done us great harm in the last 60 years.
    But french-speaking people is now fed up. 100%.

    So yes, it has gone too far. Politicians don’t even agree on “who is going to perform the negociations for the reform of the State ?”.
    ./ Wallonia and Brussels say that Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels should (based on the fact that these three Regions are the basics component of the State).
    ./ Flanders say that only Flanders and Wallonia should discuss (annexing Brussels being the final objective of flemish people). Brussels is the child of mother Flanders and Father Wallonia and should go to its room while grown ups talk.

    I really don’t know how the situation will evolve, but each side will not be eager to make concessions. Flemish politicians have promised their voters that they would kick the crap out of the walloons. And the wallons don’t intend to let it happen.
    They will use all legal levers to prevent that.

    And on last resort, a lot of us are quite ready to unite our fate to France (which we have a lot more in common that most people think).

    All I can do is stress out a few of the more relevant facts that outrage french-speaking belgians :
    ./ french-speaking people suffer from childish vexations
    ./ mayors elected cannot take place at the head of their commune because they commited the crime to send convocations in frech to french-speaking people, etc. etc. etc.
    ./ Brussels is squeezed in its boundaries and cannot dream of a single square inch a increase. IM-POS-SI-BLE. Even if a large majority of the inhabitants of some commune want that.
    ./ An influent flemish politician referred to french-speaking compatriots living in flemish ground as “immigrants”. With no more rights than a pakistani or a cambodian.

    And yes it seems that french-speaking people are prone to be poor polyglots. But how many germans do speak three languages ? How many brits do ? How many New Yorkers do ?
    People speaking minority languages (like dutch or swedish) do not have the choice.

    As I said I could go on like this for miles, and the debate would not be more productive.
    I know that flemish people also have valid grudges. Yes they have been treated badly in the past. Yes, Wallonia is economically poor. Yes, socialism has done us great harm in the last 60 years.

    Belgium was really united under the Rule of its

  12. Yes, when I read Flemish forums, I am amazed how brainwashed some flemish seem to be… it is scary how they seem to adopt a completely biased version of history in order to justify their growing scapegoating blind fanatism, supported, nurtured by Flemish media.
    What I read is: There is an alleged Walloon conspiracy trying to pour french speaking muslim immigrants in Brussels in order to turn that city into a French speaking zone. (Immigration is world wide, yet it is Walloons fault somehow!)
    Walloons are stealing flemish money while despising them in the process…yeah right.
    Fact is, Walloons don’t despise Flemish, never did. The French elite did, nothing to do with Walloons.

    They are telling us the “Walloon rule” destroyed their Flemish culture. FALSE!
    The FRENCH elitist centralist rule, despised BOTH FLEMISH AND WALLOON CULTURE, and succesfully as far as walloons are concerned, since the “Walloon culture” barely exists anymore. The Flemish culture recently woke up and blame now the WALLOONS instead of that “french elite” which has nothing do to with walloons who had their culture much more destroyed than the Flemish.

    The industrial revolution was concentrated to the Meuse river which happen to go through Wallonia. The problem of Wallonia is the same as with any part of the world which had an Industrial past(north of england, north of france, illinois…). There is no “Walloon exception”, and nothing “ethnic” neither. The walloons abroad were seen by outsiders (Sweden, US…) as a particularly hard-working bunch during history.

    The French, the Dutch and the English ridicule Flemish far more than Walloons do, yet they scapegoat Walloons because they don’t dare bitching on bigger neighbours.

    It is funny how enamored of the English the Flemish seem to be… Yet the BRIT created Belgium! Not walloons!

  13. to paraphrase my countryman above, when I hear that Flemish are “oppressed” by Walloons, it is the pot calling kettle black.

    If the Flemish are so “oppressed” by Walloons, how come Flemish are much richer? The Flemish are forbidding the Walloons to speak their own language in their own country, the Flemish yelled “Walen Buiten!” (Walloons Out!) in Leuven few decades ago, resulting in an ethnic cleansing of that university, yet it is the Walloons who are supposed to oppress them in the eyes of the Vlaams-friendly international media?

    The funny thing is, had it be English, and not French being pushed by the elite as the “lingua franca” in 1830, the Flemish would speak English today, and with a big smile! (and the Walloons would be the “culturally oppressed” by the “arrogant english(flemish)”, the role would be inversed!

    Like a Humorist would say “I know far more Walloons being fluent in Flemish, than Flemish being fluent in Walloon”

  14. Yes, when I read Flemish forums, I am amazed how brainwashed some flemish seem to be… it is scary how they seem to adopt a completely biased version of history in order to justify their growing scapegoating blind fanatism, supported, nurtured by Flemish media.

    Do you take that shXt serious? Do you mesure the people of flanders on those Forums ?

    Wel, I visit Le soir from time to time. Do you think thats nice ? I’m sometimes shocked, when i read that blog. Saying flammands are racist, intolerant, nazi pigs. Some artikels get over 300 comments, al saying. Le flammands, bli… bli… bla… bla… buth never something nice and productive towards flanders.

    If you where smart. You should realise that those blogs are not the reality. Instead, people nothing to work al day spend their to much free time on such forums.

    “The French, the Dutch and the English ridicule Flemish far more than Walloons do, yet they scapegoat Walloons because they don’t dare bitching on bigger neighbours.”

    France is just pissed of by the fact they lost there world domination status after 1945.

    Com’on. What world do you live in. Brits, Americans, etc. never heared about flamands and walloons. The only thing I know is brits making fun of smelly cheese eating monkey bastards. Typical french vs british mud trowing. Brits are the most humoristic people on planet earth, they’re biggest strength is self – reflection and making fun about others and themselves.
    Most Americans only know the shortest way to the fridge. Capital of Brussels ? ahm,…. belgium ?
    Buth, I love America. America is great. I love it then times more than france.

    The relationship between Holland an Flanders is unique. I live nearby the dutch belgian border. Yes, we make fun of eachother, buth isn’t that normal ? I have 4 friends that live in holland and work in belgium. Two of my best friends maried a dutch girlfriend.

    “It is funny how enamored of the English the Flemish seem to be… Yet the BRIT created Belgium! Not walloons!”

    For your information; people are strange creatures. Like wives that get slapped, but still love there husband. Ain’t it crazy?

    Love from
    a dutch speaking Belgian.

  15. 3 cheers for your article 🙂

    However, I do agree with some of the commenter’s to a certain point.

    I only recently started to work for my company’s Belgian branch in Brussels (having relocated from a branch in London). I grew up near the Dutch border in Germany, and have many relatives in France, so I’m doing ok in all 3 of the official languages.

    I hoped working in Brussels would be a great opportunity to become more fluent in French AND Dutch. But as soon as I arrived, I found that the only language used at my office is – French. Potential customers contacting us for information are being sent french brochures throughout, and enquiries received in flemish were being answered in english, saying that we would be happy to send french information if they are still interested. Unfortunately it is outside my control to offer the company’s services in flemish. But I think it is a matter of simple courtesy to at least be able to understand an enquiry from within your own country and maybe even respond to it in the same language.

    I think it’s a bit sad that I’m the first person to be working in that office who is able to read a Flemish email – and I’m a foreign immigrant. So I’m siding a bit with the Flemish population here, and although my dutch is currently far from perfect (okay, it’s bad) I’ll rather spend some time writing back with the help of a dictionary and a spell checker.

    That’s me two pence to that 🙂

  16. I find this forum surprisingly well-mannered (compared with another forum on blogactiv where we have had a standoff between Greeks and Macedonians…).

    Philippe: Belgium was really united under the Rule of its what?

    Cedric: Yes, you’re right, the real culprit is the French elitist culture. The victims: the Flemish, the Walloons, even some of us English… and the French themselves.

    Dave: Yes, people are strange and the media even more so. One shouldn’t believe everything one reads – even in blogs. And thank you for the great compliment. (‘Commercial’ coming up – I’ve elaborated on my feelings about Belgium and its people in a book: The Art of being Belgian).

    Katja: Sadly it’s true. I know companies in Brussels that flatly refuse to recruit Flemish employees out of sheer prejudice. I also know multinationals here, mainly in the IT field, that only recruit Flemish people… but that’s largely because they can’t find the right talent in the French-speaking community.

  17. @ Richard : sorry if my english is not perfect … What I meant is that the only really common element throughout Belgium on 19th century was its bourgeoisie (upper middle class and nobility). Only the lower people spoke the local dialects – wallon ones in Wallonia and flemish ones in Flanders.

    Walloons have given up on their dialects to speak french (which was indeed quite different). For various reasons flemish people did not. And united through the use of ABN.

    A question I wonder is : what if walloons kept on speaking their dialect (and created a normalized version of it). Would all flemish people do the effort of learning it, so they would be polite ?

  18. I wasn’t commenting on your English, Philippe – it just seems that you didn’t finish the last sentence of your posting of August 25.

    Otherwise I agree with what you say. But isn’t it possible that the Walloon language was simply sidelined by French for practical reasons, whereas Dutch was held onto by the Flemish as a matter of identity?

  19. Walloon switched to French naturally while Flemish didn’t because Walloon is much closer to French, while Flemish is a germanic language unrelated to any romance language; the transition to French is unnatural, and didn’t occur.

    The reason why French speakers don’t learn Flemish while Flemish learn French is that one is an international language while the other is not; many Flemish were Francophiles back in the day, so Flemish were exposed to French. Wallonia isn’t much exposed to Flemish.

    If “wallonian” was a standardized language like Flemish, then no one else than ppl from Wallonia would speak it, the Flemish wouldn’t give a damn and the cultural ressentment of today would be inversed.

  20. I just want to mention that our language is Dutch. Most people speak Flemish
    (southern Dutch) dialects, including myself. But we are able to speak the standard language and understand each other. This wasn’t the case for older generations, the reason being that there was only education in French at secundary schools.So it wasn’t logical at all, as somebody said, that we should speak French instead of Dutch.Of course this is what a lot of francophones would find more logical,still looking down at us and thinking we have no culture at all and just speaking some “patois”.It is this kind of attitude that younger Flemish generations no longer accept.

  21. Your assumption might be correct, Richard.
    The fact is that we don’t give a damn why the flemish people did stick to flemish dialects and/or Dutch.
    The fact is that it created a bipolarization of the country that lead us where we are.

    And flemish people can cry as long as they want, french-speaking belgians will always be reluctant to Dutch. Learning a minority language (with no similarity with yours, and harsh to your ear) just to be … polite. Yes, in an ideal world.

    People are lazy by nature… and french-speaking were used for 200 years to speak french, even in Flemish ground. And as Chris stated, everybody understood and replied in french. Most of the times happily.

    Now times have changed. I understand that. Flanders have changed, they have developped a strong nationalist feeling, which I respect.

    It took some times for us to understand the full measure of it. But do you think that all walloons are going to learn Dutch in 2 years, just by respect to their fresh nationalist feeling ?

    And just to be sure that we do not, we get insulted daily as lazy, retarded, corrupted, poor. I guarantee you that does not put me in a good mood to listen or speak dutch.

    Question, Richard : which percentage of English population do speak two, three, four european languages ?

    I could also ask (for fun): do you speak Welsh ?

  22. To answer your question, Philippe, I would think not more than five per cent. I got the opportunity, 40 years ago, to come to Belgium (a happy break for me) precisely because I was the only person in a company of 500 employees who spoke a foreign language (German, Spanish and French at the time). Not much has changed in the UK since. No, I don’t speak Welsh. As it happens, the Welsh – and particularly the Scots – feel about us English much the same way as the Flemish feel about the Walloons.

    But, as I said earlier in this blog, there is a lot going on these days in Wallonia, and the region is gradually putting its past – both the days of Cockerill glory and the miseries of the post-mining Borinage – behind it. What goes around comes around…

  23. Thanks for your answer, Richard.

    My point here is that it is a universal pattern : when your mothertongue is a minority language you don’t have the choice but to learn a more dominant one. When your mothertongue is an international one, you are reluctant to learn a minority one “to be polite”.

    It is true of English, Americans, Germans, French, Walloons and probably (although I don’t know of them) Spanish speakers.

    Flemish people can cry out loud, kick the ground, call for mama, whatever they want, they won’t change it by magic.

    And, if you read french, you can see the point of view of Jean Quatremer (french newspaper journalist from Libération) at http://bruxelles.blogs.liberation.fr/coulisses/belgique/index.html

    Interesting !

  24. Well, if the francophones (most of them) say so themselves that they are reluctant to learn Dutch as they consider it inferior, why on earth do (most of them) they insist we stick together.
    A few months ago I walked in a big store in Brussels (staplery, paper) with Belgian flags in every corner of every floor. Not a single employee was able to help me out in elementary Dutch, yet the place was full of Belgian flags.


    Sorry guys, it won’t fly…

    I hope foreigners read this blog as it is very enlightening on how Flemish people are treated for speaking their mother tongue in their supposed capital.

    PS: the Flemish dialects are (mostly) West-Lower Frankian languages… much closer to Dutch than to French. As far as I gather from the little I know/read of Walloon dialects (les flamins c’est ni des zjins…) those are more akin to French.
    For some reason not having taken on French in spite of the language discrimination makes us very bad Belgians. After all, good Belgians are monolingually French-speaking.

  25. And the entire Brussels conundrum… time and again language policies are not respected. Brussels now is mainly a city of immigrants. Managing it in a way so that a 50%-50% language balance would exist, would be better for the country. Again, this is what’s been done in and around Montréal (even changing pre-existing language dynamics). Abiding by agreed upon laws (police, MIV/STIB, hospitals…) would be a start.

    But it won’t happen… this place is done for.

  26. Don’t be mistaken, Jos : Flemish have won.

    So many years on insulting us have done their job : most of my fellow french-speaking compatriots are 100% fed-up. And yes splitting the country in two is the best solution.

    Situation has gone too far. In the Quatremer’s blog you will read a Flemish arguing that they suffered 1000 years of french-speaking imperialism. Oh-my-God !

    A good divorce is the only end to this nightmare. Flanders already form a country of its own – as proves the accusations on the french-speaking belgians in Flanders to be “immigrants” (!).

    Wallonia and (hopefully) Brussels will be rattached to France and I will be happy.

    But of course Brussels in France is something that won’t please you, hmmh ? So it won’t happen easily.

  27. Enlighten me, Richard !

    Seriously, we don’t have the choice.
    Our options are :
    ./ a confederalism as wanted by Flanders – it is not very different than a splitting of the country. Except that we continue to get our ass kicked by the Flemish, still being considered as poor arrogant lazy imperialist corrupted s.o.b.’s
    ./ splitting ang trying to subsist by ourself after a splitting ? Difficult to survice on our own…
    ./ getting re-united with a country which we have an infinity of similarities in common. And which is willing to help us re-develop ourselves economically.

    I am sorry but I feel much more close to a Frenchman of Bordeaux than with a flemish from Bruges.
    In Liège we celebrate the 14th of July much more enthusiastically than the 21th (our national day).

    The real problem is that it would be a shame for Europe, yes. The end of the Belgian dream would be a bad bad sign for the European dream.

    But imagine you are married with a wife or husband you argue with every minute of every day, who despises you and insult you in front of your children, friends and neighbours, who denies you your most elementary rights.

    Will you avoid the divorce just because it would make a bad impression in the village ?

    Especially if you already have an attractive neigbour who is delicately flirting with you …

    But I am open to dialog. If you have a good solution that satisfies everybody – ok ! I hear you loud and clear.

    I thought that Belgium was quite a successful country – for 100 years thanks to Wallonia and afterwards thanks to Flanders. But it seems I was wrong. We are not good enough for flemish people. They don’t want us to split, no, they just don’t want to have anything in common with us. No common social security, no common traffic regulation, no common justice, no nothing – except retirement fees and army (boring and expensive).
    Such hypocrisy.

    Really Richard I tell you honestly – the only french speaking persons that are not 100% disgusted by the situation are those who just don’t care. And a few old “belgicans” who, as Jos rightfully wrote, hang belgian flags everywhere, but don’t have any clue of what Belgium has become.

  28. Philippe, you have to look at this mess in a historical context. The French-speakers used to have it so good (admittedly a century ago) and the Flemish and their language were often treated like dirt. The culprits were largely the new bourgeoisie of the big towns and the problem at the time was essentially a class one (see my earlier postings) and left a legacy of deep-felt resentment with ordinary Flemish folk.

    Today, the tables are turned and the Flemish are on top. There are still people, like Jos, who have a legitimate reason to complain about lack of respect for their language, but there are also others who just feel they ‘want to get their own back’ without really knowing why – except that they also resent the fact that they have to dip into their pockets to pay for regions like the Borinage that are now disfavoured, just as much of Flanders was in the past.

    I can’t agree with you that the attitudes you describe go for the majority of educated Flemish people. I meet a lot of them and they, like many of us, are getting very tired of the machinations of the political classes. I used to think Kris Peeters was an improvement on Luc Van den Brande, but I’m beginning to wonder…

    I’m not sure I know the solution either. Maybe the European institutions should seriously start ‘blowing the whistle’ on gross infringements of individual rights, as it has done recently, to little effect.

    As an outsider I agree that, regardless of what foreign observers may think and say (a case of character assassination), Belgium has been a very successful country by anybody’s standards. And there’s a lot going on in Wallonia that bodes well for the future.

    Belgium’s success reflects a pragmatism and a spirit of compromise which is just there below the surface and which is shared by thinking people across the country. You won’t necessarily find that in France…

  29. Thanks Richard. Nice to have a view from outside on our situation !

    Personally, the psychanalitical problems of the flemish people with their past : I am fed up with it. I agree they have a lot of grudges and resentement against french-speaking bourgeoisie. Ok. I understand. Too bad. Poor little boys – Mama didn’t like them enough – bouhouhou.

    But Walloons were also sent to killing fields during WW1. We were also exploited by the bourgeoisie as far as I know.

    And most important: it was a f*** century ago ! Can’t they burry the past as all Europe did ? I don’t resent anymore Germans for what their great grandfathers did during WWII.

    I want to stop being the scapegoat for the acts of flemish french-speaking bourgeoisie of the beginning of 20th century. Not my time, not my ancesters, nothing.

    They need a complete psychanalyse on a couch !

    As for France I know Brits have a quite difficult past with this country too (and for more than 177 years !) but my choice is made for a long time now. Same culture, same language : it is more than what we always had in common with Flemish people.

    And historically Belgium was an artificial construction made after Waterloo victory (or defeat), its goal was probably to be a buffer country between big countries. Most other artificial countries around Europe are now gone (Tchekoslovakia, Yougoslavia) so I guess it’s time for us.

    My only regret is for Europe – our problems are not a good thing for the construction. But if Wallonia joins France it will not be a big change after all. A small country will be replaced by an even smaller one – no big deal.

    As for our “spirit of compromise” the next months will tell us if it is still here …

    There is hope : after 3 months of quarelling we finally managed to agree on who was going to sit on the table. Waaaawww.

  30. Actually I blame the media for Belgium not being a nation. Many things happens in Flanders but Belgium keep Wallonia from knowing it and vice-versa. This add to the erronous feeling that nothing happens elsewhere in the country. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” apply to both Belgian regions more than anything else. A channel with a shared culture exposing both community to the others culture/language would have been great, but it just doesn’t exist. An Englishman told me about a “famous” Flemish writer I never heard of. A dutchman told me is favorite band is a Belgian band I never heard of. Many “Walloninan” Actors/Singers are almost worshipped in France, and I am sure the Flemish never heard of them… This is sad ain”t it? I think there is too much culture, more than not enough in Belgium but we are blasé about it, we do nothing of it. Belgians are like an old rich man who is too greedy and anal to spend a coin of his fortune, and people end up thinking he is actually poor. But something is sure: Wallonians (I prefer that word) do really feel “gallo romans” and do not identify much with northern Europe contrary to the Flemish. But Wallonia should be the “open to the low countries” part of Francophonia, the same way Quebec is the “anglo saxon” part of Francophonia, or Alsace the “open to Germany” part of France, regions Paris has a lot to learn from.

  31. Two points that need to be stressed time and again:

    1) we are NOT talking about things that happened over a centry ago. I would take the first official Dutch version of the constitution (late 60ies) as a marker here. Do not underestimate this as it bears high relevance for understanding the process of representation of Flanders at the national political level, language standardization (I always enjoy these little comments on the lack of standardized Dutch in Flanders… as the criticasters seem to forget Belgium simply outlawed Dutch for a long haul in its history… cut of a man’s leg and then tell him off for not being the fastest of runners ;-).

    People who start off by saying “of course this happened over a centruy ago” strike me as self-proclaimed negationists staging a little causerie on das dritte Reich. Again, the median age is around 40; 50% of the Flemish were already born when theire mother tongue was finally given legal authority in their home country.

    2) Too muc emphasis on the economy… do not forget basic respect… which could be shown by finally having Brussels respect the existing language regaulations (but it never will) and have French-speakers finally stop discussing annexing territory based on the argument that people moved there, didn’t make an effort and now make up the majority (apply the same “majority” principle to the whole of Belgium and all francophones would-horresco referentes- have to speak Dutch in their administrative dealings.) We live in a ius solis Europe now… last one to argue otherwise was Hitler and his Sudeten 😉

    Basic respect is about university graduate students in Brussels not considering Dutch “moche, inutil, compliquée” (see work by Anne Morelli, prof at the ULB). That’s the francophone elite, educated in Brussels, speaking there… “filthy and useless, but do carry on with everyday business, no hard feelings hay”

    The message is well understood, there is no more hope for this wretched place; could the EU please take Brussels under its custody; up to now we all played relativealy nice, but seeing how the Belgian government now doesnot even hold a majority in Flanders, the requested (by all Flemish parties) state reform is blocked once more… the options seem exhausted. This place is designed to ensure a permanent mutual stranglehold, assuming the strangehold is restricted to a figure of speech, assuming that is.

  32. One for the road (I do enjoy these forums when I get around it).


    1) Perhaps rattachism has historic roots in Liège, but it sure sounds a hollow bell in German-speaking Belgium (inspite of what Van Cauwenberghe (a French-speaking Flem 😉 ) may believe) and Luxemburg. They will go their seperate way.

    2) Good luck surgically separating Brussels from surrounding Flanders. Perhaps you should forge some history books as to back up your claim … start by pillaging the façade of the Brussels town hall.

    3) Good luck explaining the rest of the EU why France should have Strasburg and Brussels. It was put there in the first place because Belgium was neither France nor Germany. My bets are on Prague… nice city (not like Brussels) and geographically it makes sense.

    PS: I do appreciate the EU commission took that one-line petition away, full of EU officials signing documents stating Brussels should “enlarge”. Read the fine print and you’d notice it’s not about investing in infrastucture of merging the 19 medieval communes, no “enlargement” means not having to read a Dutch legal document from town hall in Flanders…. sent a few mails asking whether their staff in Potgoriza would engage in similar poltical activism and hay presto…. came clammering down.

    May the King of Belgians live in interesting times.

    Over for now.

  33. A VERY good analysis of our situation (I can see you have a good insight of our history and current situation, something most foreigners lack severely) overall but a bit easy on some conclusions.
    For example I doubt the Scotts or Welsh or Irish would agree with your “a long time ago” story either (and that’s even longer ago). It is sitting deep and the reason why is that many French speaking Belgians (be they Walloon or other) still ACT as if we were in that opressed situation. They still talk down to Flemish and still treat them as cattle from whim they should take the milk from. This snobby behaviour and constant money draining from north to south while in the past we were nothing short of slaves to them is sitting deep. And just as the Pope had to excuse himself for the crusades and the Germans for the WW’s so should the Walloons officially excuse themselves on how they treated our Flemish acestors.
    For me it’s 100% clear that Belgium as it exists now won’t live survive 20 years. First we’ll move towards total autonomy for the regions, after that a 3 state solution. The wounds are to deep, I see it as a bad marriage that was forced on us and we have two choices: solve it peacefully and in mutual agreement or not. The way the Walloons are acting now it seems they do not want this to end and they will do anything to block every step in that direction. The only thing they will get is a more nationalistic North which will take less and less of Walloon BS (excuse the word). So actually not very smart of them, also the public opinion is really getting quite hard. The best solution is a quick solution: separate all responsibilities now and fast and start a new chapter in “Belgian” history together-apart. If we do not the future solution will be MUCH worse.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

  34. Thank you for the compliment and you’re right about the lack of understanding shown by most foreigners here (a couple of years ago I wrote ‘The Art of being Belgian’ in the hope of enlightening them, but the book sold far better with a Belgian audience, mostly Flemish!).

    I think an excuse is long overdue, but from whom? Walloon politicians are the source of much of the trouble today but, from what I have learned, the insults of the past came largely from a French-speaking elite in the big cities and not from most Walloons who were either working in ‘dark satanic mills’ or toiling in the fields or coalmines. French was the language of the educated classes everywhere: we British resented it almost as much.

    When language gets mixed up with ‘class’, it becomes explosive. Much the same antagonism erupted in Barcelona against the Castilian-speaking elite, in Slovakia against the Czechs, and in Finland against the Swedish speakers.

    Speaking for many foreigners here, I hope the communities can come to terms with their differences and their similarities, of which there are many.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘1055386704 which is not a hashcash value.

Comments are closed.