Do you know which traits Belgians think they possess? Here are some hints.
The Flemish think of themselves as hardworking, honest and dependable. Look at Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, a magnificent trio of cities, with their great cathedrals and wonderful collections of art. These were virtually city-states in their day, and still have an air of individual civic pride and autonomy about them.
Today the Flemish stand proud: they feel that their star is in the ascendant, and after centuries of being kicked around by the French-speaking Belgians they know that the boot is now on the other foot. As the old heavy industries of Wallonia collapsed, new light industries and the port facilities in the north, as well as tourism, have brought an economic renaissance for Flanders. It is now ranked as one of the most prosperous regions in Europe, leading the rest in information technology, pharmaceuticals and electrical industries.
The Flemish see themselves at the sharp end of the European economic revival. They pride themselves on their honesty, good nature and humanity, and feel they are cultured in a way that could not be labelled ostentatious. In fact, very Belgian.
The French-speaking Belgians are more likely than the Flemish to see themselves first and foremost as Belgians. The truth is that they are passing through troubled times. They see themselves as being between a rock and a hard place.
The French-speakers have lost power. They have lost the initiative in a land in which they were once the undisputed masters. Wallonia is taking on the aspect of a pleasant, sleepy province somewhere vaguely in Europe.
The French-speaking Bruxellois see themselves as even more threatened. Encircled by Flanders, they find that the Flemish want to make Brussels the capital of Flanders, despite the fact that the majority of Bruxellois are francophone. (‘It depends how you draw the map of Brussels,’ retort the Flemish.) In a word, the French-speakers of Belgium consider themselves oppressed. They find this hard to accept, for they see themselves as hardworking, dependable, good-natured, sociable and cultured (but not excessively), and rather undeserving of their relegation to playing second fiddle.