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dimanche 10 juillet 2011

In Flanders

Seven hundred and nine years ago, on 11 July 1302, there was a battle called "the Battle of the Golden Spurs". The Flemish know it as Guldensporenslag, and the Belgians who speak French as la Bataille des éperons d'or.

On that day, a French army led by Robert II of Artois was defeated by Flemish militiamen, after a long period during which the County of Flanders, a part of the French kingdom, proved rebellious and prone to unrest. Not long before, the Bruges Matins saw the citizens of the old city identify Frenchmen by asking them to pronounce a Flemish phrase: "schilt ende vriend" (shield and friend). If they couldn't pronounce it correctly, they were killed. This prompted French retaliation leading to the battle, not far from Courtrai.

Today, the Flemish Community of Belgium – which encompasses not only Flanders but also the historical provinces of Brabant and Limburg – celebrates this day as its official holiday, most notably under the influence of Hendrik Conscience's novel De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (the Lion of Flanders). Conscience, who is widely seen as the spiritual father of the Flemish movement, is the son of a Frenchman, Pierre Conscience from Besançon. When the Belgian Revolution erupted, in 1830, Conscience served with the newly formed Belgian army and encountered many peasants whose dialect, Flemish, was despised by the elite and the bourgeoisie, who spoke French. Looking towards the Netherlands, where a rich and respected language closely related to Flemish had bloomed, Dutch, Conscience wanted to adress the people directly, in their own language. He was all the more compelled to do so when he saw Belgium profile itself as a bourgeois and exclusively Francophone state. Hendrik Conscience went on to write much poetry and many novels in Flemish, an enterprise which was encouraged by Leopold I, King of the Belgians.

As was mentioned above, Conscience is considered to be one of the forefathers of the Flemish movement. This idealistic movement grew in size and scope throughout the 19th and especially the 20th century, and sought to defend the cultural identity of Flanders. This materialised overwhelmingly through the languages spoken by the lower classes: Flemish. Flemish is an umbrella term for the numerous dialects spoken in Flanders. The most distinctive of those dialects is West-Vlaams, a variant heavily influenced by French and spoken in the historical County of Flanders (Courtrai, Bruges, the Belgian coast). In the 19th century, officials of the nascent Flemish movement were faced with a grave dilemma: to stand up to French, the Flemish people needed a unified, standardised language. After much debate between those who wished for a standard Flemish language – independent from Dutch – and those who favoured language proximity with the North, the 1841 Taalcongres (Language Convention) of Ghent decided on the second option. Newspapers and novelists rapidly complied with the rules laid out by the Taalcongres and the linguistic unity of Flanders began to form under the spelling of Jan Frans Willems.

Slowly, the Flemish movement gained some ground. In 1898, in the Gelijkheidswet (Equality law), Dutch was recognised as equal to French in legal documents. During the First World War, according the so-called Flamenpolitik, the German occupier sought to exacerbate the animosity between Flemings and Walloons by using the Flemish movement to its advantage. It is in that context that Ghent University, then totally Francophone like every university in the country, was made Dutch-speaking. But this collaboration would prove poisonous to the credibility of the Flemish movement, lending credence to the idea that Flemish emancipation was equal to treason against the Belgian state. Ghent would only become a Dutch-speaking university again in 1930, amid rising demands on the part of an increasingly literate and urbanised Flemish population.

After World War Two, the drive for cultural autonomy became a determining force in Flanders, suffusing the political landscape in conflicts that would emphasise the differences between the French-speaking part and the Dutch-speaking part of the country: the Question royale about King Leopold III's return, or the School War – opposing Catholic Flanders to liberal Wallonia – all put pressure on the unitary Belgian state. La Belgique de Papa, Father's Belgium, as a prominent Belgian politican would later put it, was coming to an end. Concurrent to Flemish calls for cultural autonomy – no argument was made about economical separation – Wallonia started to experience a significant downturn of its once rich coal mining industry. This led Walloon politicians to call for economical autonomy, which was felt necessary to adress challenges specific to Wallonia. At that point, both parts of the country wanted to tear Father's Belgium apart, for very different reasons.

The following decades would see one reform after another transform Belgium into an almost impossibly complex collection of overlapping governments and competences. It has also seen Flanders and the Flemish people develop a very strong idea of selfhood, under the influence of historical Flemish writers like Conscience and concurrently to the much more recent bloom of an exclusively Flemish jet set. The latter was popularised by the rise of private television channel VTM (Vlaamse Televisiemaatschappij) in the Eighties, whose market share quickly grew to the point that, where almost all Flemings watched Dutch television in 1970, the same overwhelming majority switched loyalty to Flemish television at the onset of the Nineties' decade. Today, Flemish tabloids and newspapers talk about exclusively Flemish famous people and stars. In a country where politics has always been a number one concern, the whole of Flanders would debate passionately about the news of extreme-right figurehead Marie-Rose Morel's death to cancer, or laugh at separatist party leader Bart De Wever's latest clever one-liner.

In contrast, Francophone Belgium remains an integral and non-autonomous part of French culture. Belgian artists gain recognition only if they 'move to Paris' (monter à Paris), an idomatic expression denoting a quest for success in the French cultural world. Actors such as Yolande Moreau or Benoît Poelvoorde only gained international – and even local – acclaim after they had moved to France, the same holds true for singer Jacques Brel or flamboyant novelist Amélie Nothomb. The lack of a typically Walloon culture contrasts heavily with Flemish culture, which has grown completely detached of all of its neighbours in the course of a few decades. The only instances in which Belgian artists appeal to both Flemings and Francophones is when they sing in English, a regrettable– if inevitable – development.

And then, there is the number one issue. The main cause of the quagmire from which Belgium seeks to recover: Brussels.

The capital of Belgium is conveniently located at the heart of the country. It lies in the historical province of Brabant, which had been the home of both Germanic and Latin peoples since the Roman era. When the Burgundian Dukes established their dominion on the Low Countries, they elected Brussels as their capital. From the 15th century onwards, Brussels would never cease to be an important centre of administration and power. The local inhabitants spoke a Brabantian dialect, Brusseleer, a Germanic variant peppered with numerous French words. In the course of the centuries, Brussels would become increasingly French-speaking, replacing not standard Dutch – as some would believe – but a local dialect already strongly indebted to French.

In the second half of the 20th century, the standardisation process of the Dutch language in Flanders stopped the progress of French in all but the outskirts of Brussels. This so-called olievlek (oil spill) is the source of much anxieties in Flemish nationalist circles. Indeed, the suburbs of Brussels are – by law – geographically located in Flanders (the political entity of course, because Brussels is actually located in Brabant). But they are – much like the city they are socio-economically linked to – multilingual and in some municipalities, overwhelmingly French-speaking. This clashes with a deeply flawed idea that has slowly made its way into the conscience of the Flemish movement: that Flanders is monolingual. Regardless of all historical – Hendrik Conscience himself was bilingual – and demographical – a lot of Flemings speak three or four languages, among which French – evidence to the contrary, the official political line is that all of Flanders speaks exclusively Dutch. This inflexible line of thinking fuels the equally flawed objective by the Flemish government to ultimately administer municipalities that are bilingual, like Brussels, as if they were monolingual.

Today is the official holiday of the Flemish Community of Belgium. A Community that officially considers Brussels its capital. In Brussels, many people speak Dutch. Many people speak Turkish. Many people speak Arabic, Spanish, Bulgarian or Greek. But the lingua franca of Brussels is French. And although some Flemish politicians have managed to impose the view that Flanders is monolingual, with the exception being their own capital, this schizophrenic and distorted view of reality holds no water under the light of history. For much of the Second Millenium, the County of Flanders was a bilingual territory administered by France – Lille never spoke a Germanic dialect, but it's in Flanders –, and Limburg was under the authority of the Archbishopric of Liège. Brabant was also bilingual from the onset, because the infamous taalgrens (language border) cuts it in half since Roman times, and that border hasn't moved since.

It is time to open our eyes, and realise how beautiful and rich our country is. We have to realise that it has always been at the crossroads of the Latin and Germanic cultures, and that the one is not superior to the other. Nor that one threatens the other with extinction.

They say Belgium is a travesty. I say that eendracht maakt macht. I say that l'union fait la force. I say that in unity, there is strength.

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