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LMDLeMonde diplomatique DECEMBER 2010 i
Wallonia at a time of crisis for Belgium
On 21 November the French-speaking Belgian broadcasting organisation RTBF screened a programme by its Flemish counterpart VRT on the subject of a hypothetical break-up of Belgium. In 2006, there had been repercussions after RTBF 3 showed a fake special news report, entitled Bye Bye Belgium, in which the country was dissolved and King Albert II took flight to Kinshasa. Since then, the two broadcasters have underlined the importance of this issue through unusual joint programming. Belgium, which has been without a government since the 13 June elections, seems to be going through an existential crisis. In this uncertain state of affairs, the Walloons seem less concerned about their regional identity than their Flemish neighbours, although that does not diminish their remarkable cultural vitality. Meanwhile the province is notable for the political ascendancy of the Socialist Party.
A peaceful identity
By Marc Jacquemain
What does Wallonia mean to the people who live there? And to what extent do they feel attached to this region of theirs? A survey on 20 October 2010 by the leading Brussels newspaper La Libre Belgique said that, of Belgium’s inhabitants, 4% feel Walloon first, 25% feel Flemish first and 44% Belgian first. In terms of Belgium’s linguistic populations (1), that means that whilst 40% of Dutch speakers consider themselves first and foremost Flemish, only 10% of French speakers see themselves as first and foremost Walloon (2).
At first glance, these figures confirm a widely accepted idea: a Flemish nation definitely exists, a Belgian nation may exist, but there is no such thing as a Walloon nation. Yet though the idea contains some truth, it distracts from a greater reality; this was neatly illustrated by the tale of a man in the town centre of Liège who hung two flags from his window for all to see: the Walloon cockerel, and behind it, clearly visible, the black, yellow and red of the Belgian flag. The region’s whole identity is summed up in this image: for the majority of Wallonia’s inhabitants, the question of do they feel first Walloon or first Belgian barely signifies. Asked if they feel proud of being Walloon, they respond much like French or Americans, whose sense of national identity has never been in doubt.
Equally, those Walloons who do affirm pride in being Walloon are also proud of being Belgian. Moreover, there is a correlation between these feelings: the prouder you are of being Walloon, the prouder you are of being Belgian.
regionalism and social classes
Part of the difference between the Walloons and the Flemish lies in this attitude towards Belgium. The Walloons are Walloon and Belgian; the Flemish are Flemish rather than Belgian. This is a generalisation: nuances and lines of internal rupture inside the two linguistic communities appear on closer examination. But the contrast between the two was particularly apparent in the federal elections of June 2010; the Walloons largely favoured the Socialist Party (see A land forever socialist, p.ii), which does not take part much in disputes between the communities, whilst the Flemish backed the NVA (Nieuwe Vlaams Alliantie, New Flemish Alliance), a hardened Flemish nationalist party that came into existence barely 10 years ago (3), helping it storm to victory.
Belgium’s economic, social and cultural history since independence in 1830 offers a partial explanation of these differences. In the
19th century, rural Catholic Flanders was the country’s poor region. Wallonia in contrast was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, second only to England. Many Flemish peasants migrated to these Walloon industrial zones, the first wave of immigrants (and today indistinguishable). At that time an industrial bourgeoisie, which strongly identified with the Belgian national project, ruled over the two regions. This elite was French-speaking, from Antwerp to Liege, Bruges to Namur, by way of Ghent. So the Flemish regionalist struggle, which began at the start of the 20th century, had a strong cultural element: the aim was emancipation from a dominant economic class, which was foreign in language and also, being more liberal, suspicious of the religiosity of ordinary people. Meanwhile, from the start, the Catholic Church supported demands for Flemish social and cultural emancipation.
a ‘brand new’ capitalism
The Walloon regionalist movement took off mainly after the second world war. Development was by now on a downward spiral. With its coal and steel industries in crisis, Wallonia began to decline, while Flanders was on the path to a “brand new” capitalism, investing more in growth sectors, in particular maritime steel production, and initially automobile production and then new technologies. At the start of the 1960s, the Flemish gross domestic product overtook that of the Walloons, reversing the earlier relationship of rich and poor. Walloon identity, which was particularly strong at the time, drew mainly from the local working classes.
Trade unionists, more than politicians, demanded autonomy and what became known as “structural reforms” – greater state interventionism to reverse the industrial decline. The cultural element of these demands was ancillary. The main concern was to ensure the institutional means to maintain an economic and social policy adapted to the crisis. It is an irony of history that the institutional aspect of these demands, regional autonomy, took place from the 1980s onwards, at the exact moment when, with the spreading of neo-liberal ideology in Europe and the United States, the state was losing its legitimacy and being progressively cut back.
So the Walloon movement grew first as a social movement, with strong connections to the working classes, whose enemy was not a foreign elite but capitalism itself. From its particular history, Walloon identity has retained a specificity: a lack of interest in either kingly power or national symbolism. A natural symbiosis between Walloon and Belgian identities springs from here. That is why, at public events in Wallonia, you do not find that sea of regional flags of which the Flemish are so fond.
The second aspect of Walloon identity that has its origins in this past is its attachment to a social model, rather than to old cultural traditions. The “social democrat” model of strong social protection and dialogue, and also an appreciation of individual responsibility, seems broadly accepted. Traditions do exist of course, but they seem more local than regional. It is hard for sociologists to identify a “Walloon culture” precisely, however loosely defined. While social dialogue, in its day to day practice, may give rise to healthy bouts of conflict, the principle of dialogue remains core to the discourse of the left and the right, employers and trade unionists: it is in the name of social dialogue that one either defends the right to strike, or attempts to limit that right. And it is through reference to a model of strong solidarity that positions are forged – at times, antagonistic – on matters as varied as health policy or the automatic indexation of salaries, which has become something of a curiosity globally, but which, as a principle, no major political actor attacks head on.
Walloon identity is thus solid but far removed from the emotional, symbolic outpourings of national sentiment seen in many parts of the world. However, in the face of globalisation and its assorted pressures, it is hard to know whether this Walloon identity will prove to be the swansong of an attractive worldview or, on the contrary, a trump card to help deal with the turbulent times that seem to await all European societies.
Translated by Nicholas Hirst
(1) A little more than six Dutch speakers for every four French speakers. (2) “Affiliation, engagements, identités: l’exemple wallon”, Fédéralisme Régionalisme, vol 6, 2006: http://popups.ulg. ac.be/federalisme/sommaire.php?id=304/. (3) See Serge Govaert, “Populistes flamands, loin de l’extrême-droite”, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2010.
Marc Jacquemain is Professor of Sociology at the University of Liege
Wallonia at a glance
The capital of Wallonia is Namur. The region is made up of the provinces of Walloon Brabant, Hainaut, Liege, Luxembourg and Namur, covering 16,844 sq km or 55.18% of Belgium. Population: 3.5 million inhabitants or 32.4% of the Belgian population Economy: • Gross domestic product (GDP) growth in real terms: 1.9% (Source: Walloon Union of Companies) • Unemployment rate: 14.4% in October 2010. (Source: Walloon Ministry for Employment and Skills) • Main economic sectors The majority of Walloon companies employ between five and 19 workers (79%). The principal sectors are construction (19%); retail (17%); wholesale distribution (11%); other industries (11%); business services (7%).
Institutional status:The Belgian state is composed of three regions: Wallonia, or the Walloon Region, the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region. But Belgium also includes three linguistic communities (French, Flemish and German) and four language areas: three are unilingual (French, Dutch and German) and one is bilingual (French-Dutch).
The main competencies devolved to the regions are environmental and employment policy, town and country planning, housing, public works, regional economic policy, transport etc.
The Walloon Region also enjoys community powers over the Frenchspeaking area, which were transferred to the region by the French Community. Similarly, Wallonia transferred certain regional powers to the German Community that affect the German-speaking area.
Supplemented coordinated by Alfonso Artico
Henri Cartier-Bresson – ‘Brussels’ (1932)