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Post Cassel and the Flanders Question
Created by John Eipper on 03/01/11 5:17 PM

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Cassel and the Flanders Question (Alain de Benoist, France, 03/01/11 5:17 pm)

I do not understand why Gilbert Doctorow (14 February) was surprised to see descriptions in two languages, French and Flemish, at "the magnificent exhibition of Flemish art from the 16th and 17th centuries" organized recently by the Musée de Flandre in the French city of Cassel. This seems to me to be very normal for an exhibition of Flemish art in a museum called Museum of Flanders. But it is also very normal in a city which for the greatest part of its history was part of Flanders.

Together with Dunkerque or Hazebrouck, Cassel (Kassel) is located on the territory of Flanders (comté de Flandre) which was brutally conquered and annexed by France under King Louis XIV at the end of the 17th century. The Dutch-speaking city of Dunkerque was sold by England to Louis XIV in 1662.

It is true that today few people in Cassel speak fluent Flemish, thanks to the influence of French TV, and to the government fight in the schools against all native regional languages which has been the usual mark of the French Jacobinism for two centuries. However, at the end of the 19th century, the vast majority of the inhabitants of this part of France still spoke Flemish/Dutch. The city of Dunkerque/Dunkirk (Duynkerckel or Duunkerke) still has in its arms the famous black lion which is the emblem of Flanders. In Cassel, one of the best-known songs of the Easter Monday Carnaval is the famous "Reuze lied" ("Als de groote klokke luidt, de reuze komt uit"), which is song by everybody during the festival.

There is presently no region of Flanders in France, but a region of "Nord/Pas-de-Calais," an expression which does not mean much (it is only an allusion to the two administrative "départements" of the "Nord" and the "Pas-de-Calais"). That's precisely why many French-Flemish organizations ask for this region to be renamed the French Netherlands ("région des Pays-Bas français").

In Mont Cassel, an associative radio called Radio Uylenspiegel has been fighting since 1978 for the promotion of the Flemish/Dutch language and the Flemish Culture in the French Netherlands. It can be heard as far as Dunkerque, Ypres and St Amand, not so far from Lille (Rijsel).

The Circle Michel de Swaen (Michiel de Swaen Kring) is the main cultural organization of the French Flemish people. It bears the name of the famous Michel de Swaen, born in Dunkerque in 1654, who died in the same city in 1707. Author of many works, including several theater pieces, Michel de Swaen translated the "Cid" by Pierre Corneille and "Andronicus" by Campistron into the Dutch language. He is the greatest representative of the Dutch language and culture in French Flanders, together with Edmond de Coussemaker and Maria Petyt. In 1687, he received the title of "Prince of rhetoric of Dunkerque," the word "rhetorician" (Rederijker) designating at that time the members of the Dutch "Rederijkerskammer," an institution analogous to the famous German "Meistersinger." The Flemish writer Guido Gezelle once compared Michel de Swaen to the great Dutch Joost van den Vondel, calling him the "Vondel of Dunkerk."

To deprive a people of its culture, language, or memory, is to deprive this people of its collective historical existence. That's why I personally support all autonomist and regionalist organizations in Europe, especially those existing in Britanny, Corsica, Basque Country, Alsace, Normandy, French Netherlands, and so on.

Returning now to the interesting coverage of the Belgian crisis sent by Gilbert, I would like to make some additional remarks:

The Flemish movement appeared with the foundation of Belgium in 1830 as a vassal State of France at the time of King Louis-Philippe. Before becoming an independence movement, it was mainly a movement of cultural self-defense against a State which, four days after its foundation, forbade the use of Dutch language in the army, the administration, the justice and the schools--though Flemish people represented already 60% of the population of the country. (The "father" of the independence of Belgium, the French Charles Latour Rogier, 1800-1885, said that "the French language must become the only language of Belgium" to the expense of the Flemish/Dutch language.)

Does Gilbert know that the Constitution of Belgium was translated into Dutch only...in 1963? The Belgian State waited 133 years to translate its Constitution into the language of the majority of its citizens!

Still today, there is no daily or weekly paper published in Belgium both in French and in Dutch. There is no "Belgian" TV or radio: the stations in Dutch or in French are run by different regional administrations. Since 1971, all the political parties, without any exception, are broken in two pieces: there is a Flemish socialist party (PSA) and a French-speaking socialist party (PS), there are two Christian-Democratic parties (CD&V and CDH), two liberal parties (Open VLD and MR) two Green parties (Groen and Ecolo), etc. In addition, there are several parties which are Flemish only: N-VA, Vlaams Belang (VB), and the national-liberal party (LDD).

Gilbert wrote that that the "rattachisme" (the movement supporting the possibility of Wallonia joining France in case of an end of Belgium) "has hardly any supporters within Belgium itself." It is true that "rattachisme" was until recently supported by very few Walloons. However, it is interesting to note that a few months ago 32% of the Walloons declared themselves in favor of an incorporation of Wallonia into France (poll published in Le Figaro-Magazine, Paris, 18 June 2010). Such a solution is of course problematic, because of the Belgian province of Luxemburg (not to be confused with the Grand-Duché of Luxemburg) and because of the German-speaking minority (Eupen-Malmédy). Another form of "rattachisme," probably more interesting, would be the possible return of Flanders to the Netherlands, which would mark a new birth of the historical "great Netherlands."

The independentist N-VA is now the first party of Belgium, with 27 members in the Parliament. In the Senate, Bart De Wever has obtained 31.7% of the votes (against 28.2% in the Chamber of Deputies). According a very recent poll (Belga, 11 February), the N-VA would get in the next election 33% of the vote, against 28% in June 2009--5% more in Flanders and 3.5% more in the arrondissement of Brussel-Hal-Vilvorde.

Bart De Wever's favorite thinker is Edmund Burke. He also likes people like George Orwell, Charles Taylor or Theodore Dalrymple. See his book Het kostbare weefsel, which contains his articles published during these last years in the daily newspapers De Standaard (centrist) and De Morgen (left). On the idea of an independent Republican Flanders, one of the best recent books has been written under the editorship of Johan Sanctorum: De Vlaamse republiek: van utopie tot project, Leuven: 2009, Van Halewyck.

JE comments:  Thanks to the writings of Gilbert Doctorow and now Alain de Benoist, I'm finding the "Belgium question" increasingly interesting.  My thanks to Alain for this background information.

Greetings to all from the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This afternoon's high temperature was a glorious 84 degrees Farenheit.  Just what the Doctor ordered for this winter-fatigued Michigander.

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  • Cassel and the Flanders Question (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium 03/02/11 2:40 AM)
    Many thanks to Alain de Benoist (1 March) for his thoughtful, thorough response to my posting about the Museum of Flanders in Cassel, France. In fact, by his every word he has supported very well the point I was making and which I entitled "Playing with Matches" in a version of the WAIS essay which I published on the portal of 'La Libre Belgique'.

    By its evocation of the Flemish history of northeast France and of the repeated humiliations suffered by the local population at the hands of French dynasts which brought the state borders to their present configuration, the government and cultural leaders of the Pas de Calais/Nord department are either very obtuse (most likely) or secretly colluding with Flemish nationalists (less likely but cannot be ruled out). My greater point was that the deep implications for stability and for the further success of the post-modern supranational European Union experiment inherent in the coming split-up of Belgium are being missed by the country's immediate neighbors, starting with France, not to mention by Americans in Michigan, New York, and Washington, DC.

    Where I differ with Alain is not over the history of the Kingdom of Belgium but over the nature of the nationalisms driving not mere regionalism or autonomy, as Alain would have us believe, but questioning the existence of multi-cultural, multi-national states in general. And given the vast cultural complexity of Western Europe, with different dialects if not languages forming majorities every 50 miles or so, if not today then in the recent past going back one or two generations as in the case of French Flanders, with pockets of minorities hidden within every local majority population, the implication of pursuing the abstractly fair principle of self-determination is to blow up every nation-state now in the European Union. To what purpose? And with what result other than to satisfy the ambitions of native-born politicians at the expense of the general interest?

    The N-VA which Bart de Wever heads has projected an image of up-to-date "nationalism with a calculator," insisting that its call for the creation of a Flemish state on the corpse of the Kingdom of Belgium is dictated by purely rational economic considerations, defending the pocketbook of the wealthy, entrepreneurial north of the country against the predatory annual transfer of wealth to the economically weak, rust-belt south. Onto this they build a supposed opposition of political-economic cultures: the free-market, Anglophile, libertarian north versus the dirigiste, crony-socialism, Francophile south. They insist that they have parted company with the Romantic (meaning irrational) nationalism of their forebears with its racist overtones (including well-publicized collusion with the Nazi occupiers during WWII about which the Belgians will argue till the seas part) and xenophobia (anti-Muslim is the latest incarnation). They embrace the idea of the European Union as demonstrating their reaching out to the world, as opposed to the inward looking mind-set of the traditional Fleming movement.

    It all makes good press. However, the past week has turned up some sensational news which patently demonstrates that the apple of "new nationalism" has fallen not far from the tree. Monday's papers brought reports of the two NV-A delegates who attended a Basque national independence movement gathering in San Sebastian over the weekend and spoke of the lasting bond between Flemish separatist and Basque independence movements going back well into the Franco period. They also evoked and supported the national independence movements in the Tirol and Scotland. This all smacks of the past, irrational nationalism we know very well which can and does give rise to violence.

    Flemish participation in San Sebastian was a red flag which caught the attention of the defenders of Francophone interests in the Belgian capital. The injustices of and irreconcilable differences over the language frontier in and around Brussels underlie the fall of the last two governments of Yves Leterme and explain the present impasse over formation of a federal cabinet which has broken all records for recent European history. Olivier Maingain, the head of the FDF (Federalistes Democrates Francophones), the most vociferous Brussels-based party defending the interests of the capital and of its overwhelmingly French-speaking population, derided the hypocrisy of Flemish separatists supporting the cultural-linguistic rights of their Basque brethren while trampling on the rights of the 150,000 French speakers in the immediate suburbs of Brussels who happen to be living on "Flemish" soil.

    When we talk about nationalism even people well outside the direct line of fire like Alain and myself can overplay our case. In the given instance, Alain would do better to dispense with his avuncular tone. He manipulates his information for the sake of argument and mangles truth in the process.

    Although Alain wants to march us back in history to where the grievances of Flemings have their legitimate source (no one, least of all me, ignores these grievances), he casually overlooks history when he gives us his otherwise correct reading of the political landscape in Belgium today where no party crosses the language frontier. This tragic situation exacerbates the task of forming coalitions and dealing with economic and other policy issues that transcend the linguistic frontier. But it was not always the case. The split-up and alienation of nominally the same Belgian parties (Liberals, Greens, Catholics) in their French- and Dutch-speaking versions dates from the recent past. It came about in step with the formation of self-governing language Communities in a parallel structure to the self-governing Regions under an umbrella federal Belgian state, i.e. from the period of the new federalism in Belgium when bilingualism was reduced to the Region of Brussels-Capital and the North and the South of the country became officially monolingual. Now parties which share many economic and social planks take conflicting positions in North and South during negotiations to form a cabinet, making governance all the more problematic.

    Secondly, on the subject of rattachisme: the poll which Alain cites does not really tell us much of anything, despite the attention getting headlines which accompanied its publication in 2010. First of all, the question posed was not whether the respondents favored union with France. No, the question was conditioned by the statement "if Flanders secedes from the Kingdom of Belgium." Of course, in case of a Flemish succession, the Walloons have to wonder what is to become of them, the economically deprived part of the Kingdom which, today, cannot stand on its own two feet and relies on outside handouts. Precisely for this reason, the situation both in Wallonia today and in Brussels, which is 90% French-speaking, is that in case of Flemish succession it is expected there will be a declaration of a rump Kingdom of Belgium consisting of Wallonia and Brussels, which is, very likely, economically and politically viable. The fact is that Brussels is the locomotive of the Belgian economy. For this very reason it is the apple of contention between Flemish nationalists and Francophones. For this very reason it is where violent confrontations may be expected if the Belgian situation deteriorates. And for all these reasons, it is very important that the poll Alain cites did not include Brusselers.

    I invite Alain to come to New York on April 14th for a Round Table on the Future of the Kingdom of Belgium which I helped to organize within the context of the annual convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities. The intent has been to focus international attention on the unfolding crisis in the heart of Europe. If you look over the program of this 3-day event which draws panelists and attendees from Europe (including a substantial French delegation) as well as the Americas, you might conclude that most academic minds have been focused on the nationalisms and ethnic issues of the Former Soviet Union, the Balkans and other exotic, impoverished areas with their populations of hot-heads. It is high time for outside experts to concentrate their thoughts on what is otherwise the most economically advanced, most prosperous, "civilized" part of the world, where all mayhem can break out at any time over nationalist ambitions if we do not tread very carefully. From being a benchmark case of power-sharing solutions, in just the past few years Belgium has become a basket case of political failure in the making.

    And in case New York is not in his travel plans for April, perhaps Alain would consider taking the TGV just over the border to Brussels to attend a similar Round Table at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles on April 22nd within the context of the convention of Belgian Political Scientists (Francophone). With his erudition in the field, his participation will be most welcome.

    JE comments:  Nationalism is a topic never far from the minds of Puerto Ricans, who speak of their "country" despite over 110 years under US control.  The population here has long divided among proponents of "estadidad" (US statehood), independence and the continuation of the status quo.  Independence is favored by a minority, usually cited in the 10% range.  It will be interesting to see if the most recent nationalist movements in Belgium and elsewhere have any influence on the political debate here.


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