Four Definitions of Culture in Francophone Belgium

José Fontaine

This text was published in Kas Deprez, Louis Vos, Nationalism in Belgium, MACMILAN Press, London, 1998,  ST.MARTIN'S PRESS, New York, 1998.

In the 19th century, Francophone culture was the culture of a Belgium whose Language was French but whose "ethical-mythical core " was Flemish. The basic premiss underlying the second definition of Francophone culture, the so-called lundisme, was that there is no difference between the French literature of Francophone Belgium and the literature of France. The particular attitude known as belgitude the third approach - was somewhat akin to the Francophone BelgoFlemish culture in that it loo started from the idea that Belgium exhibited a hybrid Franco-Flemish culture, but both as a state and as a nation Belgium's identity was extremely weak. Yet, this mediocrity was considered to be rather positive. Finally, in the fourth definition, Wallonia is seen to have its own culture and therefore its own identity. Firinly entrenched in the French republican tradition, many Walloon intellectuals cannot separate Walloon identity from a specific political project. The origin of the Walloon cultural identity can be traced to the General Strike of 1960-61


The birth of Francophone Belgian literature dates back to 1867 when its first great author, Charles De Coster, published his La Légende d'Ulenspiegel. One is immediately struck by the fact that the very first hero of the Belgian imagination is a Fleming whose adventures, however, are narrated in French. Charles De Coster, who was a leftist and therefore sympathetic towards the Flemish Movement, unintentionally provided an illustration of the rather diffuse way in which Belgium was going to define itself culturally viz. as a Flemish country with French as its language (Klinkenberg, 1973). The French language was there simply to stifle the Flemish linguistic aspirations in favour of Dutch whereas Flanders and the Flemish imagination were there to push into oblivion the mere physical presence of Wallonia.

This definition is in line with Pirenne's. In his Histoire de Belgique (1900-32), Henri Pirenne departs from the premiss that the very foundation on which the construction of Belgium took shape, consisted of the County of Flanders, the Duchy of Brabant and the Principality of Liége. However, the Principality of Liège was never a part of the Netherlands (neither the Burgundian Netherlands nor the Habsburg ones). The same holds true for two other, though smaller, enclaves in Wallonia viz. Stavelot-Malmedy and Bouillon. This is the reason why, in his Histoire de Belgique, Pirenne treated these regions in their own right. To study these regions separately is the obvious thing to do if one really wants to write an appropriate history of Belgium. In doing so, however, at least 40 per cent of the present-day Walloon territory is put aside. In the handbooks it is precisely this Belgium - without 40 per cent of Wallonia - that is referred to.

A similar observation needs to be made with respect to the Brabant Revolt which remains an important point of reference. The Belgium of 1789 did indeed have its revolution but it was an event in which Luxembourg and even Hainault hardly took part. Furthermore, the Principality of Liège had its own revolution which had nothing to do with the Brabant Revolt. This means that what happened in 1789 was essentially a Flemish matter (cf. Ruys, 1968).

It is quite easy to understand why Pirenne took this specific approach of his. The aim was to write the history of Belgium as it came about in 1830. Yet, only from 1795 onwards could Pirenne's History become the history of the whole of Belgium and could the Pays de Liège also annexed by France, be treated on a par with its Belgian "neighbours".

Up to the 1980s, the most important section in the entry devoted to Belgium in the editions of the Larousse dictionary carried a heading, in capital letters, which read: ART FLAMAND Under this heading pictures were printed of the Church of Nivelles, the Cathedral of Tournai, the St. Jacques Church in LQ9e, the baptismal fonts of StBarthelimy etc.

There are objective reasons but also fairly opaque ones which account for the fact that Belgium came to be identified with Flaniers. There was, for example, the very perception of our French neighbours which strengthened this idea. It was further reinforced through the literary movement known as Symbolism. Though this literary school originated in France, its most notorious representatives were Flemish viz. Verhaeren and Maeterlinck (Piron, 1978). The appearance of great (Francophone) Flemings on the French as well as on the world literary scene contributed significantly to the way in which Belgium was perceived both inside and outside of the country viz. as a Flemish country.

We should add to this not only the prestige which Flemish painting enjoyed and the emergence of Flemish nationalism but also the fact that the Belgian state thought it useful to hand out a remuneration to those who managed to produce work which was illustrative of Flanders. As such, Belgium provided itself with a Raison d'être Given this context we can easily understand why the first definition of Belgian culture was Flemish and Francophone.

In his presentation of Belgium, Pirenne in the end did not do justice to Flanders either. He had a Francophone Flanders in mind, whose task it was to follow the example set by its elite and therefore to become French-speaking. It would seem that Pirenne did his utmost (1) to tell the Flemings that their Flanders was not what it seemed to be linguistically and (2) to tell the Walloons that they had to turn to Flanders in order to exist culturally and historically. Within a unitary conception of Belgium, this was surely a less dramatic way of capturing a duality which could not possibly be ignored. Furthermore, Pirenne emphasized that the unification of Belgium was not due to race - as in Germany - nor to politics - as in France. Rather, it was the material world which unified Belgium. That is, a kind of determinism which was both historical and economic in nature.


A second view of Francophone culture in Belgium began to take shape from the 1920s onwards, mainly under pressure from Flemish authors writing in French. In March 1937, they made their view explicit in a text called Manifeste du Groupe du Lundi [Manifesto of the Monday Group] in which they demanded that the notion Littérature belge de langue française [Belgian literature in French] be replaced by Littérature française de Belgique [French literature in Belgium].

For the lundistes what needed to be emphasized was that there were no significant differences between French literature in Belgium and the literature of France. Some of them even looked upon France as if it were the universe itself.

The ideas of the lundistes were not devoid of idealism. Indeed, believing that a literature of a politically different society (Belgium) would be essentially the same as the literature produced in another public sphere (France) presupposes that literature exists in complete isolation from the society in which it has emerged - that it is a gift from heaven, as it were. Though such a belief can hardly be maintained on sociological grounds, it was essentially the very position of the Francophone Belgian elite. (A polemic with Plisnier on this issue can be found in La Revue Nouvelle, 1952). Its universalism as well as its degree of abstractness account for the fact that it was embraced by the whole Francophone Belgian elite - whether politically to the Left or to the Right; Catholics or non-Catholics; Unitarians or Federalists; or even "Rattachists", i.e. those in favour of reunification with France.

The idea of Belgium being culturally French (and nothing but French) spread to all domains of cultural life in Francophone Belgium. It may be observed that still in 1979, the person in charge of the CACEF, an organization which preceded the current Comununaute française de Belgique (note in passing the similarity with the phrase "Littérature française de Belgique") claimed there was no proper culture in these regions -implying that the sole culture for Belgians to be engaged in was French culture (see Schyns, 1979). Given this claim, a comment may be in order here. As soon as Francophone Belgium defined its culture as being essentially French it became a political body without a proper head. Indeed, if Belgium appropriated the culture of another country then it would lack any intelligence of its own. Such a point of view does not take the people into account at all; Quebec, which also enjoys French culture is, after all, quite different from Wallonia or Senegal.

Despite their denial, the very origin of the ideas held by the lundistes ought to be situated within a specific political context. At the outset, the majority of lundistes were Flemish Francophone writers. As Flanders became more and more Flemish-minded those writers began to lose their legitimacy, i.e. the possibility of gaining recognition in Flanders where one day their books would not any longer be sold or hailed. Flanders, which had once facilitated their introduction into France and the French literary market, now seemed on the verge of eluding them and of robbing them of their symbolic power. Wallonia could not possibly serve as a substitute; Wallonia's cultur~l reality had not yet achieved any particular status of its own and, having no status, it possessed no legitimizing power whatsoever. Therefore, these authors were forced to look for direct access to the French market and did so by claiming that in point of fact they had always been French but, administratively, they were citizens of another country viz. Belgium (Quaghebeur, 1982). Clearly, there was strong contempt for die idea of citizenship. It was as if citizenship could be defined in merely institutional - i.e. administrative and political - terms whereas the remainder- one's affection and representation of the "self" etc. belonged to another country.

Hence, civic spirit stood to lose in all domains. On the cultural level, the creation of an indigenous culture was not possible anymore because this very culture was not supposed to cherish its own, proper image and thereby stimulate self-development. That is, the lundistes did not allow the French-speaking part of the country to develop an own identity and instead supported any development from without - either French or "universalistic". Citizenship itself disintegrated. Especially to the intellectual elite, political activity seemed to be something quite alien; something which was not at all linked to their "real" sense of belonging viz. the culture of France. In this context, citizenship lacked any substance (Fontaine, 1995).

A change occurred during the German occupation, from 1940 to 1944. The lundistes continued to adhere to the idea of a literature that was cut loose from society. Within the context of the German occupation, reference to France became, of course, quite unsuitable and eventually disappeared. Still, they managed to maintain their position without resorting to France which may lead one to assume that this reference to a foreign country was a mere pretext to accomplish a rupture with one's own society (Klinkenberg, 1992).


From 1975 onwards, the lundistes began to be opposed by writers who expressed no wish at all to break free from Belgium. The latter had probably felt that the cultural autonomy - granted to the French Community in 1970 (see Falter, in this volume) - was tinged with too much adoration for France (typical of the lundistes). They opposed this state of affairs by going neither for Wallonia nor for France but simply by showing outright preference for Belgium. Here one senses a need for marking oneself off from the pure and sacred France of the lundistes. This need arose in spite of some miserable trump-cards (at least when compared with the grandeur of the real or mythical France) such as : the small size of the country, its hybrid Walloon/Flemish character and even its lack of identity (Sojcher, 1980).

The notion belgitude was formed along the lines of Senghor's négritude. From the very beginning it required an unconditional return to the indigenous element ("la revendication d'un ici") This was felt to be absolutely necessary despite the fact that belgitude was something rather unstable and weak. Belgitude confirmed an identity which was in tatters; which was practically non-xistent.

Hybridization is perhaps the outstanding feature of belgitude. It is quite different from Le Pen's idea of identity which presupposes something strong, violent and exclusive. Since Belgium is situated at the very intersection of the Latin and Germanic civilizations, the supporters of belgitude consider their country to be the incarnation of cosmopolitanism, anti-racism and anti-nationalism (entailing, perhaps, even the rejection of the notion "nation" itself).

Belgian hybridization concerned Flemish authors writing in French. From a Walloon point of view, such a conception could easily be questioned because it was a hybrid in only one direction viz. from Dutch to French. For Belgium to have been a forceful and convincing entity, it should also have provided us with illustrations of the opposite hybridization viz. from French to Dutch. However, there are no Walloon writers expressing themselves in Dutch. After all, only Brussels remained to comply with a definition of "the culture of the region proper" (la culture de "l'ici") within the notion of belgitude.

Many Walloons were thoroughly disturbed at the idea of Belgium as a sweet paradise (a bit mediocre but pleasantly nestled in between two civilizations) at a time when their own industrial prosperity was going down the drain. Since the theory of belgitude applied only to Brussels, it ignored Wallonia just as the two other theories did which preceded it.


At about the time when the theory of belgitude was being developed, Wallonia witnessed a real cultural effervescence. From 1978 until 1982, all sorts of events took place testifying to the birth of a Walloon culture. In the field of histodcal sociological studies, mention should be made of La Wallonie, le pays et les hommes, an encyclopedia which appeared in six volumes during the period 1975-84. There was Michel Quévit's stem, though best-selling, Les causes du déclin wallon (1978) and his La Wallonie, l'indispensable autonomie (1982). In 1978, Conrad Detrez was the beneficiary of the prix Renaudot, an important French literary prize, for his L'herbe à brûler (1978). In 1937, Plisnier a fellow-ountryman, had received for his novel Mariages the coveted Goncourt prize. However, while Plisnier had deliberately concealed all allusions to Wallonia in Mariages Detrez did not hesitate at all to refer in his works to the 1968 students' revolt in Leuven and to the infamous 1950 "Royal Question".


The emergence of this new (still largely unaccepted and unrecognized) reality did not occur as a matter of course for, in a sense, it had to be truly laboured at. Echoes of it were to be found in the theatre (with Louvet : L'homme qui avait le soleil dans sa poche (1982)), in motion pictures (with Andrien Le grand paysage d'Alexis Droeven (1981); Bonmariage: Du beurre dans les tartines (1981); the Dardenne brothers: Regarde Jonathan (1984); Michel: Hiver '60 (1982)), in literature (with Haumont: Les forêts tempérées (1982); Dubois: L'oeil de la mouche (1981)), in comic strips (with Comès : Silence (1980); Servais : La Tchalette (1982)), in poetry and related texts (with Verheggen: Le degré zorro de l'écriture (1978); Cliff: Ecrasez-le !, (1976)), in singing (with Beaucarne, Anciaux, Watrin, Goethals etc.). Nobody had ever talked about Walloon cinema and yet, one day, the term was being used by the film makers themselves and by the critics. What had already been accepted historically at least -for music and painting now found acceptance in other domains such as singing, comic strips and literature which, admittedly, were being written in French but had emanated from Wallonia.

The appearance of a culture wallonne came about at a time when Wallonia was being charmed by a spirited political movement whose aim it was to strive after full autonomy. The movement became extremely active after the "Royal Question" (the subject-matter of both a play by Louvet and by Detrez's highly praised novel) and after the General Strike during the winter of 1960-61 (the topic of a film by Michel).

In September 1983, eighty intellectuals notified the Belgian population of the existence of a Walloon culture through the publication of their Manifeste pour la culture wallonne. The signatories of this manifesto were opposed especially to the theory of the lundistes rather than to belgitude (Fontaine, 1992). They particularly took issue with the Communauté française de Belgique. In Brussels (but also elsewhere) the signatories of the manifesto met with stiff opposition. The Bruxellois exhibited a strong tendency to side with the Communauté française (Vagman, 1994). Despite the support of some favouring the idea of a threesome regionalism (also on the cultural level) a violent counteroffensive spread from Brussels and was carried on by those Walloon circles which were only marginally federalist or autonomist.

The Bruxellois Ph.Moureaux, member of the government of the Communauté française, was vehemently opposed. When in February 1989, for the first time, an important Walloon politician -José Happart subscribed to the ideas of the Walloon intellectuals, opposition circles in Brussels really went up the wall. On 15 September 1989, a Manifeste pour la Communauté française appeared. It was signed by many notables who themselves held key posts in this very Communauté française. On 27 September, the national holiday of both Walloons and French-speaking Bruxellois, Y.Ylieff - himself a Walloon and the successor of Ph. Moureaux - declared that the Walloons possessed no ail, no culture and no proper language of their own. To this, Th. Haumont retorted in the newspaper Le Soir :

It is quite symptomatic that the term "Wallonia" appears but once in the entire Manifesto and even then - in line with the traditional Belgian practice - it is used disdainfully [ ... ] Can one have faith in an institution which - so as to safeguard its very existence - is forced [ ... ] to shout into the face of a people (75 per cent of the country's Francophones) that it does not have any art, culture or language ? (4.10.1989).

Indeed, it is all there : the scorn, the non-existence, the fact that one is being asked to subscribe to the ideology of the lundistes which, except for the language, completely ignores the Walloons as a tangible people.


The theory underlying a Francophone Belgo-Flemish identity implied that it was the Belgian state which assumed responsibility for matters relating to culture. For the lundistes, the Belgian state was denied any such putative responsibility. There was clearly an ideological contradiction here. Quaghebeur (1982) has shown that the most fervent lundistes opponents of anything remotely Belgian in the culture were precisely those who for a long time were in charge of, for example, the Institution littéraire en Belgique (such as, for instance, M. Thiry and R. Bodart).

A similar observation can be made with regard to the advocates of belgitude. They should have feared that the Communauté française constructed on a mere linguistic foundation - might well break up die Belgian hybridization. Yet, supporters of belgitude have shown a tendency to associate themselves with the Communauté whenever the latter was being queried by Walloon intellectuals demanding the right for Walloon culture to exist and to be promoted. Though exclusively Francophone, only the Communauté française is (culturally at least) regarded as Belgian.

Soon, many Walloons, fervent supporters of autonomy - whether active in cultural or political spheres - became offended at the idea of a Communauté française de Belgique which, even in its very name, manages to ignore the existence of Wallonia. Their idea was to become truly Walloon so as to have a better grasp of the world. Such action is seen to be reciprocal because by becoming better Walloons they will be in a position to reach a more adequate understanding of Europe mid the world at large. In their eyes, there cannot possibly be a Unified Europe nor any universality of thought if this means that the tiniest of identities need to be sacrificed.



José Fontaine, Le citoyen déclassé. Monarchie belge et société, (Contradictions, n° 77) et TOUDI (n° 8), 1995.

José Fontaine, La Wallonie et ses intellectuels, in Cahiers Marxistes n° 187 en TOUDI, n° 7, 1992.

Jean-Marie Klinkenberg, Style et archaïsme dans La légende d'Ulenspiegel, Palais des Académies, Bruxelles, 1973.

Jean-Marie Klinkenberg, Lectures du Manifeste du LundiLettres romanes (1992), pp 98-124.

Henri Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique, Lambertin, Bruxelles, 1900-1932.

Marc Quaghebeur, Balises pour une histoire de nos lettres, in Alphabet des lettres belges de langue française, Palais des Académies, Bruxelles, 1982.

Maurice Piron, Aspects et profils de la culture romane en Belgique, Sciences et lettres, Liège, 1978.

Manu Ruys, The Flemings, A People on the Move, a Nation in Being, Lannoo, Tielt, 1968.

W. Schyns, De Waalse cultuur en het Cultuurgebied, in Wallonië, portret van een ombekendeKultuurleven, 79, 7 (1979), 640-64.

Jacques Sojcher, La Belgique malgré toutRevue de l'ULB, Bruxelles, 1980.

Vincent Vagman, Le mouvement wallon et la question bruxelloiseCourrier hebdomadaire du CRISP, n° 1434-1435, 1994)




1. This contribution owes a lot to M. Quaghebeur's 1982 publication.