Along the language frontier

As Belgium is on the brink of collapse, some talk of a second Yugoslavia, partly in jest, partly not. It has been violent before. Will it be violent again? Philip Ebels rode his bicycle along the language frontier in order to find out.
Philip Ebels
27 October 2010

A CAR APPROACHES from afar on a muddy countryside road between the corn and the sugar beet, just south of the WWI battlefields of Ypres, Belgium, and comes to a standstill not two meters away from me. Two men emerge. They wear high, leather boots and long, wooden poles with hooks at the end. “We’re the musk rat catchers of Heuvelland”, one of them explains, referring to the western border municipality. Their territory ends here, I understand from his thick West-Flemish, but they often need to go further. “Things used to be easier”, he says, and points at a lonely clutter of red-roofed houses on the horizon, “when all that was still part of Flanders.”

That was before 1963, when the language frontier was drawn, dividing the country into Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Forty-two municipalities switched sides after fierce negotiations. The one on the horizon, Comines-Warneton, became an odd state at the western end of the frontier, entirely isolated from the rest of Wallonia. And, like its mirror municipality in the east, the Flemish exclave of Voeren, it didn’t go without a fight. Mobs of disgruntled citizens clashed regularly and violently.

Not anymore, the rat catcher assures me. Language conflicts are a thing of the past. Everybody here is bilingual. Even today, when a bitter political standoff brings the country close to collapse since elections in April produced an ostensibly irreconcilable result, and analogies with Yugoslavia and Ireland fill the cafés, partly in jest, partly not, people here live in peace he says. He regrets the “sale” of this fine piece of land, but accepts it. “It will never be part of Flanders again.”

I get back on my bicycle, a secondhand Peugeot that I found on a flee market in Brussels, burdened with saddlebags and a tent, and pedal on. I’m headed for the border town of Comines, which in the early Eighties became national news when an angry crowd of Francophone residents rallied at the gate of a newly opened Flemish elementary school. The terrified children and their parents had to run the gauntlet to reach the classrooms. “As if we were in Belfast”, remembers director Tom Vandermeuelen.

It’s the only Flemish school on Walloon soil. Yet the first few residents I talk to, all French-speaking, don’t even know it exists. Others kindly show me the way. “Problems? Not at all”, they tell me, almost surprised at my impertinent question. “To the contrary; many Francophones these days choose to send their kids there for the sake of having them grow up bilingual.”

The building, a 19th century villa, looks peaceful but deserted. It’s Wednesday afternoon, school is out. “People have more than accepted us”, Vandermeulen says over the telephone. “Nine out of ten children speak French at home. It’s the mayor who makes life difficult for us.” He talks about “harassments”, such as road construction works on the first day of school or a map of all the schools in town except for one. But other than that, “we live in peace”.


MY ROUTE TAKES me along one of the oldest frontiers in Europe, separating the Germanic from the Romanic world ever since large groups of barbarians invaded the Roman empire in the early Middle Ages. But it wasn’t until after the French Revolution, when language began to play an important role in European nation building, that the frontier acquired political meaning.

Belgium began its troubled life in 1830 as a unitary, Francophone state. The gradual recognition towards the end of the 19th century of the Flemish, a variety of Dutch which at the time was considered little more than a peasant’s mutter, raised the issue of territorial demarcation. Decades would go by before it was settled and a frontier was agreed upon, but it would never entirely disappear and continues to rattle the political debate even today.

The scenery improves as soon as I leave the industrial cauldrons of the west behind me. And, as if by some divine agreement, so does the weather. Corn, cows and the Virgin Mary, watching over the land from the many chapels and niches scattered across it, keep me company as I cycle from village to village, slowly towards the east.

I notice how meticulous they’ve been. They haven’t just cut the country in half in a single stroke, but gone around barns, bushes and alleyways. Sometimes the frontier follows a natural border, like a river or a hill. Sometimes it follows a road, separating one side from the other. (Twice I came across a village cut in half. One woman told me that garbage day is on a different day on the other side of the road.) Other times it doesn’t seem to follow anything, twisting madly with no apparent reason.

People actually start to speak another language the moment you cross this invisible boundary. They don’t do so gradually, like in many other European border regions, but abruptly. One farmer talks to me in Flemish; his neighbour a football field away speaks French. It’s an almost schizophrenic experience as I cross the border for what could be the twentieth time today.

But despite the contrast this is not Yugoslavia. “It’s the politicians”, most people tell me, “they’re the ones who don’t get along.” I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I didn’t expect to find a bullet-ridden war zone, but at least a strong opinion, some inciting graffiti, or maybe even a bar brawl. Nothing of the sort. But, the real hotbeds still lie ahead.


ONE IS THE municipality of Sint-Genesius-Rode, just south of Brussels. It is historically and officially Flemish, but has grown overwhelmingly Francophone—or non-Dutch-speaking, since it has been discovered by the city’s many diplomats and European Union officials. It is green, safe, and prosperous. Geographically, it borders Brussels in the north—officially bilingual but a de facto Francophone enclave within Flanders—and Wallonia in the south. Francophone politicians, therefore, have had their eyes on it for years, much to the chagrin of the Flemish.

I strike an odd note among the pretty girls in shiny cabriolets, driving to and from the tennis court. One of them points me towards the small city centre, trying her utmost to answer in Dutch. “Bonjour, goeiedag”, is how the people here greet me, which I take to mean as much as “I come in peace”, the salaam aleikum of bigger Brussels. “Goeiedag, bonjour”, seems to be the appropriate reply, aleikum salaam.

One window across the street from the village church announces this year’s “Gordel”, an annual bicycle ride around the Brussels periphery, for the Flemish by the Flemish, to show the world that the land is still theirs. Francophone residents traditionally show their appreciation by changing road signs and throwing nails on bike paths the night before.

The signposts at the local cultural centre have been vandalised. French translations are covered in blue paint. A passing woman isn’t surprised. “Tensions are rising”, she says. Born and bred in Rode, as the Flemish like to call it, she was forced to move because house prices have soared. Her parents still live here, she still comes to visit.

“All the children used to be Flemish”, she tells me, when she was a teacher at the local elementary school where she worked for more than twenty years. “Today, more than half are French-speaking. And their parents don’t even bother to speak Flemish in school.” Rode is lost forever, she regrets, there’s nothing to be done. “But”, she says, “not everyone agrees.” She happens to know a few members of the Taal Aktie Komitee, a militant group for the preservation of the Dutch language. “They’re not planning a second Yugoslavia or anything”, she says, “but if Rode is ever given away, things will get ugly.”


I BIKE ON, across the enormous Sonian Forest, past castles and mansions where the once ruling classes must have contemplated the same troubled cohabitation. Both parties have a point, I decide, as I leave the Brussels bickering behind me. The Flemish are afraid to lose their hard-won territory to their age-old occupier; the Francophones just want to be able to speak their own language in what they still consider to be also their country. To the Flemish, the language frontier is like a state frontier; to the Francophones it is little more than an administrative demarcation.

The country is postcard-pretty as the sun gets ready to set. Glowing hills as far as the eye can see hide the odd village church in between. People here tell me the same as before. “Did you read that in the newspaper, my boy?”, an old man laughs when I ask him about those difficult Flemish. “Don’t let them fool you, there are no problems here.” Perhaps, I think, it is peaceful in the countryside simply because the two communities hardly meet. Most villages are miles apart. Contrary to the Brussels periphery, people here don’t live on top of each other.

Sometimes I feel like I’m on the set of Blue Velvet. Villages are rustic, lawns are mowed, streets are clean and people are nice to such an extent that there must be something simmering underneath. One in four Flemish still voted for the New Flemish Alliance, a party officially striving for independence. A passerby in Grandville, a small Walloon village covered in sugar beet stench, offers an explanation. “The Flemish from around here are fine. It’s the ones from up north; they’re the selfish ones.”

The next morning I have breakfast with a friendly lady who let me sleep in her back yard. “I can understand the Flemish”, she says. “We [the ruling Francophone bourgeoisie of yore] really humiliated them. Our season workers used to sleep in a garden shed that we called la maison des Flamands. They were treated as immigrant workers.” Their demand for more autonomy, she says, strengthened by a much better performing economy, is therefore seldom without revanchist sentiment.

I FINALLY ARRIVE in the Voerstreek, the Flemish exclave in the eastern part of the country, where José Happart and his men used to fight the Taal Aktie Komitee and the Order of Flemish Militants. Today’s demography is mixed, but has shifted in favour of the Dutch-speakers, largely thanks to the many Dutch people from neighbouring Limburg who’ve come to settle in this precious valley.

My expectations are high and immediately confirmed as I enter the first of a handful of villages. Slogans have been painted on the street by what must have been Francophone militants. “Flamands dehors”, it reads, “Flemish out”, or “Vive Happart”. A house is for sale, “for Dutch-speakers”.

The church square is where the riots used to be. A fruit seller serves his clients, in French. I order a peach, in Dutch, but draw a blank. The fruit seller doesn’t speak or understand Flemish, he says, apologetically, but has never had any problems ever since he first came here more than a year ago. The mayor, an old Flemish militant, even helped him find a place to install his fruit stand. A thirty year old woman tells me she’s lived here her whole life and “never saw or heard anything”.

Similar pacific comments are heard in the other villages. “Those were people from outside”, one woman tells me, when I ask her about the troubles from back in the days, “They came here to fight their cause. True, it hasn’t always been absolute harmony”, she admits, “but the people who live here have never tried to kill each other.”

Somebody painted the letters TAK, for Taal Aktie Komitee, on the village’s electrical supply shed. Somebody else drew a swastika above it, capturing the Francophone perception of Flemish nationalism. “La lutte continue”, it says on the street, barely readable, “the fight goes on”. The letters have faded, as it seems the fight itself has.


Picture credits: From his photo book "Frontières/Grens", with thanks to Michel Castermans

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