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Politique - Approche générale

Wallonia today - The search for an identity without nationalist mania  - (1995)
Version française

Philippe Destatte
Historian - Director of the Jules-Destrée Institute

Looking at Wallonia from the point of view of "nationalism", the Wallonia which is emerging today can give rise to concern to many outside observers, just as the Wallonia created by the Walloon movement did at a time. This is because it is rare for a political community and a public law institution to have been founded on such blatant and radical rejection of nationalism.

Thus, more than a century after the birth of the Walloon movement, more than twenty-five years after the incorporation of the Walloon Region into the Belgian Constitution and the very first time there is a Walloon Parliament comprising members elected directly and separately from the federal Chamber, one would have to be cyncial to identify Walloon nationalism in Wallonia (1).

Indeed, researchers have debated at great length about the concepts themselves and there are very many who stress that nation and nationalism should not be confused, that there is no harm in the nation as such, and that it is even essential for the political and social balance.

One might even consider, in fact, that it is only a question of definition. Since, with Dominique Schnapper, one might stress that, alongside the current meaning of nationalism defined as the desire for power of nations already formed to assert themselves at the expense of others, the term would also describe the claims of ethnic minorities to be recognised as nations, that is to say, to make the historical and cultural community and political organisation match. However, as the author of "La Communauté des Citoyens" ("The Community of Citizens") stresses, the idea of a nation could not be based solely on the rational and universal ambition of citizenship and could not avoid calling on emotions bound up with the special historical and cultural features of each national entity (SCHNAPPER, 1994, p155).

Thus, even for sociologists, if one can escape from the differentialist side of the nation, one cannot escape from its irrational side which, as an essential ingredient, cannot be left out of the equation. The historian will, however, have to recall that, as far as he is concerned, even if he can write it enthusiastically, he conceives history only as "reasoned", to use Pierre Vilar's words (VILAR, 1984, p29). "If the historian is no longer considered to be a rational being, he loses his reason for existing", wrote Philippe Raxhon, Jules and Marie Destrée Prize 1991 (RAXHON, 1989, p13).


Since one can say together with Jacques Julliard that if "it is not nearly good enough for any sense of belonging to a national type community to equate to nationalism", nationalism is still defined as "the aggressive exacerbation of the natural feelings of belonging to the national community" (JULLIARD, 1994, p48).

Thus, the concept of nationalism still goes back, today as in the past, to what the historian Raoul Girardet calls "the nationalism of the nationalists" (GIRARDET, 1983, p16). This nationalism, which came to light in France at the end of the 19th century and was popularised by Barrès and Maurras, appears to be associated with precise political attitudes in history, which are more often than not conservative, always anti-liberal, anti-parliamentary and, in therefore, anti- democratic. The excessive love of the land of one's ancestors and, in its name, the denunciation of "parliamentary turmoil" has had even more redoubtable success and is better known in Italy and Germany.

In this area as in others, Walloon political power maintains the position cultivated by the Walloon movement. Actually the distinction between the institutional and the militant function is tenuous. Was it not the Minister-President of the Walloon Government, Robert Collignon, in a speech given to the University of Mons-Hainaut on 14 February 1995, who stressed that, even if we are far from the total isolation of the first Walloon militants, the fact remains that the Walloon identity is still not sufficiently clear. He added: "in particular because Walloon militants, of which I am one, are for the most part anything but nationalist, chauvinistic or sectarian" (COLLIGNON, 1995, p18). Thus, the Minister-President of the Walloon Government, faithful to his previous stand as a Walloon member of parliament, also stood up to be counted alongside his predecessors in the Walloon capital (DESTATTE, 1995, p13-21).

Furthermore, the Minister-President announced that he had headed a recently published reference paper: "Wallonia, Assets and References for a Region" (2), a quote from the historian Léon-E. Halkin, dated 1938: "One hundred years ago, Wallonia would perhaps have found unity in the extraordinary vitality which turned the Sambre and Meuse region into the largest factory on the continent (..) Today, we have to look further, transcending dialectology and economy to make the Walloon community aware of its moral unity (...) This will be the awareness of a historical tradition of freedom" (DESTATTE, 1993).

Indeed, the idea of continuity between the Walloon movement and the public law institution which make up Wallonia today remains challenged just like the political legitimacy of Wallonia itself, its ability to have a political plan, a culture, a history, ... and even historians. This is because, in the eyes of certain observers, supporters of a specious objectivism, the Walloons are still "a people without a past and with an uncertain future" (EVENS, 1993). To listen to them, wasn't the movement which produced the idea of Wallonia marginal until 1914-18, with no influence whatsoever on a large part of the population until the Second World War at least" and finally largely "mythical" (KESTELOOT, 1993, p3, 5, 40, 42): the myth of the Resistance during the Second World War, the myth of the events of 1950, the myth of federalism and the structural reforms during the great strike?

The debate has already lasted a long time and comes from the same circles. Already in 1961, André Renard recalled that, in the terminology of political confrontations, the term "myth" was often used with very strong pejorative intent. "It is far from being proved that mythical thought and rational thought are paradoxical", he wrote. "What motivates some peoples violently further in history are indeed a rational cause and objective, and the appeal to the sociology of primitive societies would not be sufficient to charge them with enslavement to some lower instinct [...]" (RENARD, 1962, p337).

In fact, subsequently involved in the Belgian national ideology, then in that of unilateral solidarity with Brussels, now imposed by the French Community of Belgium, Wallonia has remained deprived - even in the process of State reforms - of any institutional capacity enabling it to develop any political and cultural identity or to produce a real citizen's mobilisation for its project. Thus, at no time has Wallonia been able to use media - and particularly the television (FONTAINE, 1987, p5-17) - or education systems which are not deeply and structurally opposed to the very idea of its autonomy, or even its mere existence. Cultural skills, moreover, are still today directly excluded from the large autonomy of the Walloon Region which, in certain respects, verges on sovereignty.

This just shows you how the relationship between the Walloons and their history or their culture was and is still difficult to establish. It is all the more difficult to do so since overshadowings which we have just mentioned have been compounded by what Jean Ladrière called a "partial coincidence", at a certain stage, between the workers' movement in the socialist sphere of influence and the Walloon movement (J. LADRIERE, 1988, p111). Even today, the dynamics of Wallonia, that is, the role of the Walloon issue and the Walloon militants in the uprisings of 1950 and 1960, is still unrecognised. There are photographs which bear witness to the events, such as those taken at the funerals of Walloons killed at Grâce-Berleur: this is because by evoking this tragic fact, some observers, expecting to find a red flag at the head of the funeral cortège, are very surprised to find the Walloon cockerel there ...

It is true that the Walloon movement, which has never stopped affirming that Wallonia is part of the French cultural area, has never made this cultural struggle a priority, being more concerned to struggle against its status as a political minority and the economic decline which was only a corollary to it.

On that subject, it is even more surprising to find in 1978 that it is the author of the book "The Causes of the Decline of Wallonia", Professor Michel Quévit, graduate of the universities of Wisconsin, Michigan and Harvard, who is one of the main architects of the process of Walloon identification. In fact, what might appear to be a paradox when one reads the title of this book, is not one since the professor of the University of Louvain aimed his questions in a cold, objective manner, "to find the theoretical and practical means to put right the existing situation" (QUEVIT, 1978, p285). In his conclusions, Michel Quévit sketched out the paths for Wallonia to struggle against its minority status within Belgian society: firstly, by setting up democratic structures which guarantee the autonomy of its political decisions and, secondly, by choosing another economic policy, notably of public industrial initiative, for the Walloon region. Both these options required a profound change of mentality and political structure, particularly among the parties. Quévit wrote that indeed the conflicts of interests arising out of the spiritual families polarised the political struggle upon problems diverging from a global and coherent society society project. This project had to respond to the temptation which the author considered important, to founder into a sterile nationalism or a cursory opposition to Flemish nationalism. (QUEVIT, 1978, p288-289).

State reform which was implemented in 1980 responds only very partially to these views. One one hand, the political and institutional weight of the communities increases while, on the other hand, the regional economic competences remain very weak because the important industrial sectors remain under the central state and the means of the Walloon Region remain insignificant. However, a Walloon decision-making centre has been introduced around a Walloon regional Council and an Executive elected by proportional voting, so that Walloon power can transcend the divisions between the parties. A Walloon public initiative is also created through a Regional Investment Company (SRIW).

In 1982, in "La Wallonie: l'indispensable autonomie" ("Wallonia: essential autonomy"), Michel Quévit recalled that the division of the Walloons and the very absence of a Walloon consciousness had their historical roots in the will of the Belgian ruling class - for a long time in the hands of the Flemish - tacitly supported by the Walloon middle class, to draw its prosperity by exploiting Walloon soil and the work of its people. There was thus a Walloon identity, but unrecognised in the Belgian culture: this is the title of a chapter in this book. This identity was overshadowed by the French Community of Belgium and, more generally, by the whole Belgian ideological and sociological context which culturally and politically denied the idea of Wallonia and was perhaps "incapable of allowing Wallonia to reach the stage of a concept". That consciousness, "which does not go beyond a diffuse feeling", added Michel Quévit, "had however kept the Walloons going for centuries with the confused conviction that they are a different people, a Latin or French people" (QUEVIT, 1982, p135-137).

In his analysis, Michel Quévit noted vital cultural awareness and movement in Wallonia centred on magazines, such as "Wallons-nous?" ("Are we Walloons?"), writers, film producers or singers such as Jean Louvet, Jean-Jacques Andrien or Jules Beaucarne, who all convey a sense of Walloon identity. Since the "Manifesto for Walloon Culture", published on 15 September 1983 by several dozen Walloon intellectuals appears both as a desire to affirm the existence of Wallonia as a State and to build a cultural plan alongside the economic plan for everyone who has chosen to be part of Wallonia and remain so. This text embraced the whole approach of a democratic affirmation of a progressive Walloon movement (TOURRET, 1994, p58-75) as it had been developing for a century: "All those who live and work in the area of Wallonia are unreservedly part of Wallonia. All humanitarian thoughts and beliefs, without exception, are part of Wallonia. As a mere people community, Wallonia wants to have its own identity with an opening onto the world." (ANDRIEN, 1984, p965v).

This desire to define a society project has been demonstrated in an approach which the Flemish journalist Guido Fonteyn described as the "Walloon awakening" (FONTEYN, 1983). This is because on 17 and 18 October 1987, more than four hundred leading personalities from different cultural, philosophical and political backgrounds met to determine a new paradigm for a "Wallonia with a future". If the initiative came from the Institut Jules Destrée, a Walloon pluralist body striving since 1938 - and more strongly since 1960 - for the definition of the persona of Wallonia, Professor Michel Quévit, as general reporter, was the prime mover in this reflection. Most of the instigators and first signatories of the Manifesto - Jacques Dubois, José Fontaine, Jean- Marie Klinkenberg, Jean Louvet, etc, - were present.

Michel Quévit's general report was entitled "Wallonia, a plan for a society". It referred in turn to the economic plan, the technological and scientific plan, the educational plan and the cultural plan. The latter, which dominated the paper, enabled him to reveal a claim to the existence of a real cultural project in Wallonia, a project which could not be dissociated from the other objectives and especially not the economic one.

Following the speakers at the conference, Michel Quévit highlighted two requirements for Wallonia. Firstly, the reporter "hoped and prayed for a settling in the history which would getting it out of amnesia, and the capacity for Wallonia as a people community to adapt to the present by studying its past, so as to direct its future better". Secondly, Professor Quévit asked whether Wallonia was "still capable of forging an identity for itself likely to gather together all the constituents of its population around an innovative society project".

On the basis of the conference reflections, the reporter set out the ground rules for that identity. It had not to be confused with:

- an out-moded nationalism based on the romantic tradition of the 19th century;

- the claim to be a homogeneous and standardizing society. The local, sub-regional and ethnic particularities of Wallonia - largely influenced by immigration - make it a multi-cultural entity.

- a turning in on oneself, as some have (wrongly) described it.

"This search for an identity", continued Michel Quévit, "so necessary to its very existence, must reject a narrow regionalism and rest on that dual complementary approach so well defined by Kundera:

- the universality approach of a region open to the outside, where its actual experiences is apprehended as a reality also experienced from the outside.

- the settling approach, by taking on board a rich and complex history and by the lofty affirmation of a specificity backed up by the knowledge and the multi-cultural reality of the region" (QUEVIT, 1989, p524-529).

Thus, in addition to the desire to build a regional development strategy for the Walloon manufacturing base, in addition to the desire to have an effective policy on science and technology centred on the Walloon entreprises and the European research programmes, in addition to the desire to adapt the Walloon education system to future requirements, "Wallonia with a future" planned to forge a solid identity for itself without nationalism or any move towards uniformity and affirmed its wish to build the cultural means and institutional framework essential to its development.

This first conference, "Wallonia with a future", had very important repercussions in Wallonia, among intellectual, research and teaching circles, but also among political circles in which the minutes were widely circulated. Following Melchior Wathelet, the Minister-President of Wallonia, Bernard Anselme, Guy Spitaels and Robert Collignon supported the approach, affirming their concern to see a true permanent inter-disciplinary Walloon Prospective Centre run by an independent scientific Committee.

In 1991, a second conference "Wallonia with a future" followed the first. Its title was "The Challenge of Education" because the scientific committee considered it to be the fundamental issue in the paradigm to develop. It was held in the capital of a Wallonia profoundly changed by the new institutional steps taken in 1988 and 1989, which more than doubled the competences and financial means of the Walloon Region, without however endowing it with its own education or culture. It was not the only originality of this conference which, in its works and conclusions, exceeds the purpose of this article. The precise link with the identity of the project defended by Wallonia was contained in this preliminary statement: "Building a country means constructing its education" (DESTATTE, 1992, p5-7).

In his general report, Professor Michel Quévit referred to a true humanist society project and challenged the participants: "Isn't it our basic aim to invent the ways and means which will give all levels of the population, and I mean all levels of the population, the skills and ability to live in an independent and positive way the necessary changes in the future and to break with the failure syndrome?" (QUEVIT, 1992, p606). In his closing speech, the Minister-President, Bernard Anselme, recalled that the Walloons were building their future by following "the decisive and thought out approach of their intellectuals, researchers, experts, economic and social players" (QUEVIT, 1992, p617).

The new ministerial team of Guy Epitaels was set up a few weeks later. In the statement he made to the Walloon Council on 22 January 1992, the new Minister-President proposed a society project to the Walloons: "Together and in a sometimes difficult context, making Wallonia into a region where economic and technological development, solidarity with the underprivileged and passing on a preserved heritage to future generations will not be empty words". Thus, Guy Spitaels commits his government in a desire to alter the face of a dual society made up of rich and poor, nationals and immigrants.

His successor at the head of the Walloon government, Robert Collignon, ensured the continuity to the message when at the 1994 Wallonia Festival, he offered his thanks to those who had made the choice of contributing to the life of the region in this way, especially, he added, "if it is in the overriding concern for the enhanced well-being of its population without any distinction of nationality, but with specific attention for our less well-off citizens [...]"

"Making our region into a land where there is solidarity and where social injustice is on the decline, these are the aspirations of everyone in the Walloon Government and they intend to carry through their task with these intentions. We spoke about this "society project" 32 months ago: I do not think there can be any other more noble and more generous [...] "

The Minister-President concluded his speech with the following words:

"Freedom and democracy are the fundamental values of our civilisation and culture bought by hard struggles. Let us take care to preserve them" (COLLIGNON, 1994, p12-19).

A conference at the University of Mons on 14 February 1995 provided another opportunity for Robert Collignon to spell out his concept of a Walloon identity made up of "shared pride, mobilizing projects and the simple pleasure of living together here", as he had described it in his government statement (DESTATTE, 1995, p19). He stressed at Mons that "for my part there is no shadow of unbridled nationalism, this would be alien to my character and uncalled-for, considering the damage others cause by playing on this type of emotion, not only outside the Belgian state." (COLLIGNON, 1995, p18).

The passage of time strengthens and clarifies the official position of the Walloon Government. In the statement from the now called "Collignon II Government", the Minister-President stated on 22 June 1995 before a Walloon regional council hereinafter called "Parliament", the federal loyalty of Wallonia and also the fact that this loyalty would not prevent its government from affirming the autonomy of the Walloon region. The Government will do this, he said, "while respecting the fundamental values and the principle of respect for other people which has always characterised Wallonia, land of welcome and respect of the Human Rights, from wherever people come, be it from southern Italy or north Africa."

The cohesion between the affirmation of the Walloon project desired by Elie Baussart or Fernand Dehousse, to quote the militants who have written the most on this subject, "The 1983 Manifesto", the paradigm for "Wallonia with a future", one one hand, and the Walloon Government's statements, on the other hand, is obvious. We can see the same desire for political affirmation of Wallonia on both sides, and for the definition of an active political area open to others and free of nationalist tension. "These are only words", some will reply. This is true but the history of ideas above all consists of words collected from the past and which have matured today. There is nothing to say that a policy other than the one which has been proclaimed is or will be followed.

A new Walloon parliament has just been formed as a result of the 1993 state reform. Instead of 104 parliamentarians elected as members of the Brussels parliament and then decentralised, Wallonia today has 75 parliamentarians elected directly and separately to the Walloon parliament, which is now their only task. This parliament has constitutional autonomy, that is, the legal means to decide alone on its functioning and, by extension, on the constitutional future of Wallonia.

This is Wallonia's chance: finally to give meaning to the concept of "new citizenship", developed after the 1991 elections to try to respond to the deterioration of the image of the res publica throughout the Belgian state (WYNANTS, 1993). In this area, five years of economic crisis have not improved the situation since political exclusion has been added virtually automatically to the social exclusion of many. In fact, this citizenship might be exercised in the political area formed by the Walloon region by enabling, and even encouraging, a global debate on the society project which intellectuals and political personalities have drawn up. The main issue for all the citizens of this Wallonia, which has finally come of age, would be to transcribe this objective into a fundamental declaration - a constitution, one might say - and to put this "Walloon Constitution" to a vote in the Walloon Parliament. Might that not be the best way for the citizens to grasp the initiative again? To build the community of citizens which is so dear to Dominique Schnapper? To build and participate in the "nation without nationalism" which Jean Daniel considers to be "one of the immense advances possible in the history of societies". (DANIEL, 1995, p164).

"We have only the politicians we deserve", goes the saying. Will the Walloons deserve the men and women politicians who will give life to their new Parliament? Will these new members of parliament be able to fulfil the moral and political ambitions which have been traced for more than a century by the militants in the Walloon movement? Will they take up the challenge of making the idea of a "Wallonia for everyone" a reality?



(1) I classify in this category the multiple and unscientific stands of Claude Demelenne and Anne Morelli on this question, with the exception of A. MORELLI: "En l'an 2.000, une Wallonie au pluriel dans la "Wallonie au Futur", "Vers un nouveau paradigme", "Actes du Congrès" (Charleroi, Institut Jules Destrée, 1989, p228.) I have for a long time opted for what Jean Pirotte calls a lucid and honest approach, in which the personal affinities of the historian, the options of his research and his specific point of view would be specified straight away. (PIROTTE, 1994, p26). See in particular Ph. DESTATTE, 1989.
(2) This book was produced under the scientific co-ordination of his head of cabinet, N. Freddy Joris, himself a historian of the history of the Walloon movement.


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