Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
There are 3.6 million predominantly French-speaking residents in the Walloon region of southern Belgium. Although French is dominantly used as lingua franca in Brussels-Capital Region by around 95 per cent of the population, only 57 per cent of residents actually speak it at home and 8 per cent are bilingual (French and Flemish). However, it is important to remember that Brussels-Capital’s French-speakers are not necessarily Walloons, as many French-speaking Bruxellois are descendent of Flemings or French people, and rarely self-identify as Walloons.
Belgian French is slightly different from standard French as it contains many Germanic and Romance dialect words and syntax.
A variety of regional languages are spoken on an occasional and informal basis in the French-language community of Belgium. Walloon is spoken in most of the province of Liège, in the province of Brabant-Wallon, in the province of Namur, in the northern part of the province of Luxembourg and in the eastern part of the province of Hainaut. Picard is spoken in the western part of the province of Hainaut. Lorrain (or Gaumais) is spoken by a smaller number of people in the south of the province of Luxembourg and Champenois is spoken in a few villages in the west of the provinces of Namur and Luxembourg. Luxembourgish (a variant of German) is spoken in the region of Arlon/Arel and Martelange, bordering Luxembourg.
Walloon, Picard, Gaumais and Champenois belong to the oïl-language group, romance languages which developed from romana lingua, or vulgar Latin, in the eighth century.
Belgium was the first continental European country to industrialize, from 1800. Wallonia was the economic powerhouse of Belgium and Belgium was a leading industrial country in Europe, despite its small size. The industries attracted migrants from Flanders and from France, Italy, Germany and Poland.
Socialism began to take root in the 1840s, influenced by French intellectuals. In the 1850s trade unions were set up in Flanders and Wallonia. Flemish trade unions tended to be dominated by Roman Catholic politics, while Walloon trade unions were mostly socialist. The Parti ouvrier belge, the first socialist political party, was established in 1885 and campaigned for universal suffrage.
The occupation of Belgium by Germany from 1940 to 1945 favoured Flanders as the Germans encouraged Flemish nationalism. At the end of the war there were bitter accusations of collaboration against the Flemish by French-speakers. The growing strength of separatist movements, Walloon and Flemish, was underpinned by changing economics. The new petroleum and chemicals industries that rapidly expanded from the 1950s were based around Antwerp and Ghent because of their ports. Other new industries grew there, producing goods such as cars, for delivery throughout the European Economic Community. But coal and steel, Wallonia’s main source of employment were in decline.
French-speakers had dominated Belgium since independence from the Flemish in 1830. The aristocracy and upper middle class, even in Flanders, spoke French. French was the language of instruction of most secondary schools until the 1960s. But the rising economic power of Flanders and the economic decline of Wallonia made this situation untenable. French-speakers had always been in a minority from the first Belgian census in 1846, when they were 42 per cent of the population and the Flemish 57 per cent. These relative shares remained roughly the same a century later, and Walloons were afraid of being overruled by the Flemish. Bitter language battles, sometimes fought in the streets, led to a slow process of federalization from 1968 to 1993.
From the late nineteenth century French-speaking intellectuals and politicians wanted to break away from Belgium and join France. The first Walloon National Congress was held in 1913. At the second Walloon National Congress in October 1945 a poll on the future of Wallonia initially showed that a large majority favoured unification with France. However, this poll was declared invalid and in the second poll, everyone voted in favour of federalism for Wallonia in Belgium. The third Walloon National Congress in 1946 proposed that Belgium become a federal state with three regions, Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels.
In 1962 the cultural and linguistic border was drawn for the first time between the Flemish- and French-speaking areas amid accusations that French-speakers were being discriminated against. In 1963 language laws established Flemish, French and German as the official languages for their geographical areas. When the Constitution was amended in 1970 it set up cultural communities and regions, including the French-language community and the Walloon region. The new Constitution provided guarantees for the French-speaking minority, in particular the national parliament was divided into language groups and a special majority of the two main groups, French and Flemish, was needed to alter laws affecting the constitutional rights of the people. In addition, the national government should be composed of equal numbers of Walloon and Flemish ministers, excluding the prime minister.
In 1980 the powers of the communities and regions were more closely defined and extended, and they were endowed with governments and parliaments. The Flemish region and community combined their structures and adopted Antwerp as the regional capital, but Wallonia had no such cohesion. French-speakers were still hoping to make Brussels their cultural capital. The Walloon region set up its government and parliament in Namur. In 1989 the details of the Brussels region were agreed, in particular the arrangements for the suburban districts with significant French-speaking and Flemish minorities. The French-language community subsequently set up its parliament and government in Brussels. The parliament has 94 members, including 75 from Wallonia and 19 from the French-language group of the Brussels parliament.
In 1994 the community transferred some of its powers to Walloon region, notably promotion of sports and tourism, vocational training, school transport, health care, welfare and the integration of immigrants. The region also has responsibility for planning matters, transport, the environment, energy, employment policies, agriculture, housing, public works, and regional aspects of the economy and international trade. The community is responsible for education, language, cultural and social affairs.
In 1990 the community gave official recognition to Walloon, Picard, Gaumais, Champenois and Moselle Frankish (Luxembourgish) as regional languages and set up a Council for Regional Languages.
The upper classes and bourgeoisie adopted standard French in the nineteenth century, but until 1900 most people in Wallonia spoke Walloon. Standard French was seen as the language of opportunity, but as the general use of Walloon declined, so interest in studying it and in producing plays and poetry in Walloon increased.
Wallonia still has slightly slower growth and higher unemployment than the Belgian average. This contrasts with the Brussels region, which is very prosperous. Despite the difficulties of converting from old industries, it has a thriving science and technology sector and has diversified its economy.
Standard French is the language of instruction in schools and higher education. The ability to speak other languages is less strong in the French-speaking areas of Wallonia than in Flanders or Brussels, or in the German-speaking community. Some politicians and opinion leaders are still in favour of unification with France.
The aim of the 1990 decree giving official recognition to the regional languages is to strengthen their presence in the education system, but not as languages of instruction. The languages are offered as voluntary subjects in various primary and secondary schools, and in third-level non-university establishments.
New standards in the Walloon languages, including new grammars and dictionaries, have enabled the languages to be studied and taught more easily. New standards in Luxembourgish, produced in Luxembourg, aid the use and development of this language.
The French-language public radio and television service RTBF broadcasts some radio and television programmes in the regional languages. Local radio and television stations also transmit programmes in these languages. French-language newspapers and magazines publish some articles in the regional languages. Several local associations publish periodicals dealing with the literature and linguistic make-up of these languages. New literary works in the regional languages appear regularly in several literature magazines, and Walloon theatre is flourishing.
The main association for the promotion of Walloon in social and public life is the Union Culturelle Wallonne (UCW), which has five provincial associations and over 250 local Walloon groups. The majority are theatre companies, but they also include writers’ circles and the five provincial ‘Walon è Scole’ (Walloon at school) committees.
There is anti-immigrant sentiment in Wallonia and French-speaking Brussels, but the political parties seeking to exploit this are fragmented and their activities are not fully reported in the media, which regards them as fringe.