Places to visit

The Flemish language - "flamand"

A country divided
When French king Louis XIV captured much of the old Spanish/Austrian Netherlands, his peace treaties drew artificial borders across Flanders. The new border divided centuries-old districts in two, separating towns such as Lille from half of their natural hinterland.

It seemed to have taken several generations for people in the North to have accepted that they were part of France. Flanders had prospered under the Spanish and the Austrians.

As recently as 1900 the everyday language of people in maritime Flanders was Flemish - "flamand", a dialect of Dutch - rather than French. (see map of language areas)

Sun king
King Louis XIV - "the Sun King" - divided Flanders in order to strengthen the north and eastern borders of France

Slow death of the old language
In 1802 when Napoleon set up the new schools - "lycées" - to give everyone the chance of a free education, pupils in this area had their lessons in French, but were permitted as a concession to converse amongst themselves in Flemish.

1830 Belgian independence
After the Napoleonic Wars, the peace settlement in 1815 initially put the old Austrian Netherlands under the rule of the Dutch kingdom. But the Catholics of this area resented domination by the Protestant Dutch. They revolted, and in 1830, the Belgium was declared an independent state.

Although thrown together in one country by their Catholic religion, the Belgians were divided by language (see map of language areas). At the outset, there was a strong movement amongst the French-speaking Walloons in western Belgium to join France. French king Louis Philippe ignored them in the interests of European peace. In later decades there were movements of families in both directions across the Franco-Belgian border.

Behind the French border, French gradually took over as the main language. Education and military service were strong influences giving young men particularly a French national identity.

map

Wallonia - French speaking

Flanders - Dutch speaking

Brussels-Capital - bilingual

France - blue/green area is where Flemish used to be the main everyday language

Map: Regional boundaries in Belgium - former language areas in France

The legacy
During the German Occupation of 1940-44, the whole area was administered from Brussels, under harsh military rule. The Nazis tried to use Flemish cultural identity to divide the local population, and some supporters of Flemish dialect and traditions were accused of collaboration after the war.

Today the Flemish language is virtually dead in northern France, but there is a body of local slang words called "Ch'ti", in which many Flemish words survive. Flamand has left behind a strong legacy in the form of many local placenames, like Steenwerck, Hondschoote, Cassel, Wormhout... There is a distinctive region cuisine - the north is also the only part of France where the preferred everyday drink is beer rather than wine. The north's carnival "giants" are a popular custom shared with Belgium and Spain. There is a small radio station broadcasting from Cassel that tries to revive the old language. But unlike other minority language groups, such as the Basques in Spain, or welsh-Gaelic in the UK, there is little popular response.

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Places to visit:
Le Palais de Justice - Flemish Parliament building in Douai
Traditional Games Workshop - in Hondschoote, you can try out (and buy) toys and games

Related background information
Beer
Traditional Games
"Giants" - find out more!

History of Flanders
Flemish Art
Language

Food & drink

Flanders today

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