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Allochthons, Colonizers, and

Scroungers: Exclusionary Populism in

Bambi Ceuppens

Abstract: This article analyzes the growth of autochthony in Belgium as an example

of the increasing popularity of autochthony discourses in Western Europe.
Autochthony discourses, which try to reserve the benefits of the welfare state to
those who are said to really belong, tend to thrive in prosperous Western European
welfare states with a strong Social-Democratic tradition that refuse to accept that
they have become immigrant countries. In federalized Belgium, however,
autochthony has a much stronger appeal in Flanders, which historically was domi-
nated by Christian-Democratic parties, than in Wallonia, which remains a Social-
Democratic bulwark. Analyzing Western European autochthony in terms of welfare
chauvinism helps explain the ways in which prosperous Flemings, unlike impover-
ished Walloons, can afford to buy into the neoliberal rhetoric of choice and thus
create themselves as autochthons.

Résumé: Cette contribution analyse la progression de l’autochtonie en Belgique,

pour montrer la popularité grandissante du discours autochtone en Europe de
l’Ouest. Les discours de l’autochtonie, tentant de réserver les privilèges de l’aide
sociale venant de l’état à ceux qui sont considérés comme les vrais citoyens, ont ten-
dance à s’épanouir dans les pays prospères de l’Europe de l’Ouest avec une tradi-
tion sociale démocratique forte et qui refusent d’admettre qu’ils sont devenus des
pays d’immigration. En Belgique fédérale, cependant, l’autochtonie a un succès
beaucoup plus fort en Flandre, historiquement dominée par les régions chréti-
ennes démocratiques, qu’en Wallonie, le bastion social démocratique. L’analyse de
l’autochtonie d’Europe de l’Ouest en termes de chauvinisme de la protection
sociale permet de montrer comment les habitants de la Flandre prospère, à l’op-

African Studies Review, Volume 49, Number 2 (September 2006), pp. 147–186
Bambi Ceuppens holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of St.
Andrews in Scotland. She is a senior researcher at the African Research Centre,
based in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Catholic
University of Leuven (Belgium). Her major research interests are Belgium’s
colonial past, the Flemish Movement, autochthony, racism and exclusion in con-
temporary Flanders, and the relations between anthropology and the arts.

148 African Studies Review

posé des Wallons appauvris, peuvent se permettre d’accueillir une rhétorique néo-
libérale de choix, s’établissant ainsi eux-mêmes comme des autochtones.


Belgium has been described as the only state in the world where different
oppressed majorities coexist, each with a claim of superiority over the other
but all suffering from a sense of inferiority (Wigny 1969:178). While succes-
sive reconfigurations in the state system have made them all eligible, in var-
ious degrees, to claim autochthony, only the radical right Flemish-national-
ist party Vlaams Blok, recently renamed Vlaams Belang (see Erk 2005) and
subsequently called VB, has managed to dominate politics by virtue of its
autochthony rhetoric. In this article, I try to examine why this is so.
Like South Africa, Belgium is a policultural state (Comaroff &
Comaroff 2003) in which autochthonous movements make claims on the
state in order to gain control over economic resources. Western European
and sub-Saharan African autochthony are equally concerned with the
exclusion within national polities of supposed “strangers,” including fellow
citizens, by rendering citizenship conditional (Comaroff 2005:131). Gen-
erally speaking, sub-Saharan African autochthony expresses a fear of being
outvoted by “strangers” under new democratic rules, while Western Euro-
pean autochthony expresses an attempt to reserve the benefits of the wel-
fare state for those who are said to really belong (Ceuppens & Geschiere
2005). In Flanders, however, the effect of the federalization of the Belgian
state has had a similar effect as that of democratization in sub-Saharan
Africa: it has eroded the concept of rights-bearing individuals by fore-
grounding the rights of cultural subjects as identity-bearing subjects
(Comaroff & Comaroff 2003:455). I treat the appeal of autochthony in
Flanders here as an example of European autochthony in general. If, as
Jean Comaroff suggests, postcolonies are speeded-up, hyperextended
transformations of the modernist nation-states on which they model them-
selves, “sedimentations, if you will, of the history of Euro-politics slightly
ahead of itself” (2005:130), students of European autochthony would do
well to study its sub-Saharan counterpart.

European Autochthony
The modernist nation-state was erected on a fantasy of cultural homo-
geneity and “horizontal fraternity” (Comaroff & Comaroff 2003:454) which
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 149

ignored the degree to which state power both destroys and generates cul-
tural differentiation (Sider 1987:3; see also Reed-Danahay 1996; Sahlins
1996).1 The renewed appeal of ethnicity since the 1960s has been
explained by the fact that members of minority groups find the notion of
cultures more attractive than a hierarchy of “races” or classes (Roosens
1989), although the subsequent rise of the radical right in Europe, which
has come to replace the idea of a “racial” supremacy with one of cultural
hierarchy, seems to challenge this assumption. However, the popular
appeal of radical right parties like VB derives not least from the fact that
they invoke autochthonous claims rather than ethnic ones.2
As described here, European autochthony cannot be reduced to eth-
nicity, nationalism, or right-wing racism. If one defines separatist national-
ism as the efforts of an ethnic group that is not identified with the state to
reshape state structures (Coakley 1992:1), autochthony is different insofar
as it is about the efforts of any group that identifies with a locality within the
state. The association with a locality rather than an ethnic group is a key ele-
ment in distinguishing autochthony from ethnicity; as such, it harkens back
to notions of belonging that precede the development of the nation-state.
The meaning of étranger (from which “stranger” is derived), in the
sense of a non-national, is historically secondary to the meaning conveyed
by estraigne in early French, before the development of the nation-state, as
someone from outside a defined locality (Grillo 1985:71). The predomi-
nantly Western European anthropology of locality (Cohen 1982a:7)
focuses upon belonging and localism. “Associated with the notion of a par-
ticular bounded space with its set of close-knit social relationships based
upon strong kinship ties and length of residence” (Featherstone 1996:47),
it shows the difficulties in establishing who the “real” locals and, by impli-
cation, the “real” aliens are (Strathern 1982). Localism can attribute
“alien” status to owners of a second home and to tourists (see, e.g., Eth-
nologie Française 32/3, 2002), individuals with a “deviant” lifestyle (Bagley
1973:177–78; Bowie 1993:172–73; Macdonald 1997:140), or state officials
and their agents (Berdahl 1999:69; Cohen 1982:305; Reed-Danahay
1996:60, Rogers 1991:21; Wylie 1957:chap.10). As such, we should be wary
of the suggestion that local identities bear any direct relationship to ethnic
identity (Edwards 1998:161).
A recent study of locals and newcomers in an English urban setting
argues that “although locals usually report a sense of familiarity, this does
not convey a sense that they belong,” while “newcomers” employ a dis-
course of “elective belonging . . . in which those who have an account of
why they live in a place, and can relate their residence to their choices and
circumstances, are the most ‘at home’” (Savage et al. 2005:52–3, 45). What-
ever the relative merit of localism or “elective belonging” to describe local
identities in Western Europe, the rise of autochthony highlights the endur-
ing appeal of belonging and localism in the conflictual relations between
local neighborhoods and states (Appadurai 1991).
150 African Studies Review

Using geography to distinguish between insiders and outsiders and to

elicit loyalty, autochthony connects territories and belonging to privilege
the rights of first-comers and exclude others as “strangers” in relation to
the polis (Stolcke 1995). Drawing upon localist discourses, it invokes an
image of a culturally rather than ethnically homogeneous society. As an
“exclusionary populism” (Betz 2001) that evokes a restrictive notion of cit-
izenship, European autochthony relies upon sharp distinctions between
“us” and “them” that are relational insofar as neither identity is ever fixed:
“outsiders” can be those who compete in any given region with the “first”
inhabitants over control of resources, a political class that allows this to
happen, and/or an intellectual class blinded by “political correctness” that
refuses to acknowledge the problem. Using culture—that is, commonly
held ways of life and values that impart a sense of unity as a marker for dis-
tinction—in order to (re)classify “locals” as “aliens,” citizens as noncitizens,
and vice versa, autochthony can draw upon existing ethnic categories or set
up cultural differences within ethnic groups. Of course, ethnicity was never
a fixed or stable category to begin with. Perhaps the current popularity of
autochthony, drawing upon local models of symbolic boundaries (Cohen
1985), in part reflects the failure of public discourses about structural
boundaries to grasp the constant flux that characterizes the postnational,
postcolonial global world. Simultaneously, autochthony foregrounds cul-
tural diversity while obscuring structural socioeconomic differences. For
instance, French workers erect strong boundaries against Muslims, whose
culture is viewed as fundamentally incompatible with a universalistic
French culture, while they take in Italian, Hispanic, and Portuguese immi-
grants as members of the collectivity and downplay barriers against blacks
and the poor (Lamont 2002). Indeed, the popularity of the culture-con-
cept in popular parlance goes hand in hand with the growth of global cor-
porate power, whose effects upon socioeconomic differences it ignores
(Steigerwald 2004).
European autochthony thrives in welfare states such as Austria, Bel-
gium, Denmark, and the Netherlands—nations with a strong Social-Demo-
cratic tradition that refuse to accept the reality that they have become
countries of immigrants. While the most developed welfare states in Scan-
dinavia also have the most stringent laws pertaining to immigration, they
are not all similarly susceptible to autochthony parties (Van den Brink
2005; see also Pred 2000). In Belgium, the appeal of autochthony is
uneven: it is more widespread in Flanders, which has a strong Christian-
Democratic tradition, than in Wallonia, which remains a Social-Democratic
bulwark. The actual presence of immigrants is not a factor as such: there
are far more labor immigrants and illegal immigrants in Brussels and Wal-
lonia than in Flanders, and VB now attracts voters in localities that are vir-
tually or wholly devoid of “foreigners” of any kind.
Like colonialism, autochthony connects political rights to migratory
movements and is preoccupied with ideas about primordialism. But while
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 151

spatializing and temporalizing cultural differences in hierarchical models

allowed Western colonizers to justify subjugating “first nations” inhabiting
foreign lands in overseas territories, autochthony adepts invoke their first
arrival in any given region or state to claim political rights against “new-
comers.” One could argue that these are not all that different from ethnic
or national claims, but for my purpose, the similarities between
autochthony and colonialism are revealing. Flemings used to draw parallels
between the minority Francophone oppression of Flemings in the metro-
pole and the oppression of Congolese and Flemings in the colony (Ceup-
pens 2003). In postcolonial Belgium, Flemish autochthony claims explicitly
refer to Francophones as occupiers, colonizers, or imperialists invading
their region or meddling in what they consider local affairs, while Fran-
cophone autochthony discourses claim the opposite.3 Nevertheless, there
is no party comparable to VB in Francophone Belgium. In the remainder
of this article, I will try to show why this is so.

Belgian Plural Society

Consociationalism and Municipalism

At the time of Belgian independence in 1830, Flanders in the north was

more populous than Wallonia in the south. However, Flanders was also a
poor region inhabited by a predominantly rural, peasant population,
unlike Wallonia, which was the first industrialized region on the European
continent.4 While most Belgians spoke local (Dutch, German, and
Romance) dialects as their native tongues, political life was dominated by
Francophone elites, split between conservative Catholics (representing the
countryside and the interests of a land-owning elite) and anticlerical Lib-
erals (representing an urban bourgeoisie) (Gerard 1995). The introduc-
tion of universal male suffrage in 1919 paved the way for verzuiling (pillar-
ization) as a specific form of segmented pluralism. Linking political parties,
civic associations, and a wide range of auxiliary organizations, pillarization
immersed individuals in their own particular category from the cradle to
the grave (Méndez-Lago 1999:192).5 Belgian pillars separate Catholics
from anticlericals and capitalists from the proletariat through overlapping
cleavages (Lorwin 1974:182).6 After 1919, alternating governments of
Catholics or Liberals were replaced by coalitions between (Flemish)
Catholics (now Christian Democrats) and (Walloon) Socialists (now Social
Democrats).7 Historically, pillars were geographically based: the country-
side was Catholic; urban, industrialized centers were Socialist; provincial
towns dominated by domestic industries (sugar, etc.) were Liberal. Locally,
however, this seeming uniformity could hide a bewildering patchwork of
rivaling factions (Haegemans et al. 1976) within the same pillar, each with
their own civic associations. In some communes, tensions ran so high that
152 African Studies Review

factions became endogamous (Van Laar 1988:45–46).8

During the first fifty years of its existence, the Belgian state considered
the distinction between nationals and non-nationals less relevant than that
between locals and newcomers (Caestecker 1997:334). Deputies differenti-
ated foreigners less in terms of their nationality than in relation to the
threat they might pose to the social order, in particular to the interests of
the property-owning classes (Vandersteene & Schiepers 1994–95). They
took it for granted that schooling, and communal life on common soil
would transform non-Belgians into Belgians (Caestecker 1997:339–41).
The notion of “foreigner” acquired an edge only with the introduction of
universal male suffrage and the subsequent development of the welfare
state, as different interest groups tried to reserve the benefits of the welfare
state for citizens (Caestecker 2000, 2001). After World War II, trade unions
took a more inclusive approach and started to defend the rights of all their
members, irrespective of their nationality or ethnic background.
Belgium’s consociational, pillarized system is an institutionalized form
of conflict management that is oriented to the group rather than to the
individual and is characterized by accommodation on the part of the elite
(Lijphart 1977, 1981): The stability of the system depends upon the ability
of elites, representing the different segments, to distribute the costs and
benefits of government so as not to advantage or disadvantage any subcul-
ture (Lamy 1986:117). This built-in deference to political elites has been
held responsible for the political passivity that has typified the Belgian elec-
torate (Huyse 1970). However, shifting attention from the national/federal
level to the local level challenges this view. Of all Europeans, Belgians iden-
tify most with their local village or town (Kerkhofs et al. 1984:14–15;
1992:199–200). Flemings use the term kerktorenmentaliteit (church-tower
mentality) to describe individuals’ strong attachments to their local com-
munities (i.e., parishes). Belgium has been called a republic of communes
(Hill 2005:99) whose inhabitants are patriots of streets, hamlets, villages, or
towns because the limits of their communal “us” does not reach beyond a
different dialect (Van den Broeck 1980:233).9 Belgian local politics are
characterized by municipalism (Levy 1996:5; Lyttleton 1996:35): the polit-
ical expression of localism, or the idea that local communities should have
a high degree of political autonomy. Municipalism connects communities
and communes in much the same way that nationalism connects nations
and states. To paraphrase Anthony Cohen (2000:148), insofar as a concern
with the commune or with local identity becomes the basis for political
action, we move from localism to municipalism.10
Historically, peasants became incorporated into the central state
through the co-optation of local notables. The central government was
favorably disposed toward local nobles whose political resources lay in their
control of local peasantries (cf. Clapham 1982:3), while local nobles viewed
politics as an important means for reinforcing or obtaining economic
power and gaining access to external resources. Most Belgians remain pri-
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 153

marily concerned with political autonomy at the local level (Ackaert

1994:27). While the elected burgomaster represents both the national gov-
ernment and his local constituency, his power derives primarily from the
fact that he represents local interest groups and plays a crucial role in strad-
dling the two spheres: 65 percent of Flemish deputies combine a parlia-
mentary mandate with a municipal one (Ackaert 1997:590). Nowadays, the
culture of clientelism is stronger in Wallonia than in Flanders, but Bel-
gians’ sense of civic virtue remains low (cf. Silverman 1996:146; Castells
1983:228). Many rely upon patrons and pistons, a network of carefully cul-
tivated contacts in an array of potentially useful places, to guide them
through the maze of the impersonal formal state bureaucracy, to get
around its laws and regulations, or to gain access to economic resources
(cf. Berdahl 1999:113–22; Rogers 1991:110–12, 195; Wylie 1963:223, cited
in Reed-Danahay 1996:63).

The Flemish and Walloon Movements

The Flemish and Walloon Movements do not denote organizations but
rather a wide range of cultural, linguistic, economic, and political activities.
They can refer to an ever-changing array of societies or groups united only
by a common commitment to some aspect of Dutch/French language, cul-
ture, and/or politics (see MacDonald 1993:73). Initially, the movements’
ideologies reflected the existing power relations: the predominantly
Catholic, right-wing Flemish Movement identified with the Flemish people
as a whole, the Walloon Movement identified with a social elite that was in
the main anticlerical and progressive (Kesteloot 1993:19–20; Wils
Almost as old as the Belgian state, the Flemish Movement started
among lower-middle-class patriots who could not afford to join the Fran-
cophone elite but discovered that French was needed for professional
advancement (Wilmars 1968:63). They felt that the state should recognize
Dutch as an official language if it wanted to secure the loyalty of the
Dutchophone majority (see Kellas 1992:167–68). Unlike the Francophone
Church leaders, who supported the movement only insofar as they hoped
that making/keeping inhabitants of Flanders Flemish would keep them
Catholic, the lower clergy played an important role as culture brokers,
turning individual Dutchophone inhabitants in Flanders into self-con-
scious Flemings (cf. Vail 1989). Against so-called particularists who stressed
that the Catholic Flemish even needed a language that would set them
apart from the predominantly Protestant Dutch, the Belgian government
officially recognized standard Dutch for spelling in 1844.
The Walloon Movement started in Flanders and Brussels among Wal-
loon newcomers in reaction to the Flemish Movement. Considering
French the only means for “civilizing” (Kesteloot 2004:14), it regarded
“Flemish” and “Walloon” as collections of dialects incapable of transmitting
154 African Studies Review

Enlightenment ideals and as impediments to economic development. Its

advocates were convinced that lower-class Flemish wanted nothing more
than to learn the superior French language but were prevented from doing
so by the clergy (Kesteloot 2004:120).12 Fearing that the official recogni-
tion of Dutch as a language on a par with French would jeopardize Fran-
cophones’ privileges, the Walloon Movement rejected the Flemish Move-
ment’s initial demand that individual Belgians be allowed to deal with the
authorities in either Dutch or French, since this meant that civil servants
throughout the country would need to master both languages. Instead, it
proposed a bilingual regime in Flanders to accommodate its Francophone
minority (in 1830, some 5 percent of Flanders’ and 25 percent of Brussels’
inhabitants were Francophone but many retained a knowledge of Flemish
dialects) and a unilingual (i.e., French) regime in Wallonia.13
Flemish political claims were first made in the trenches of World War
I, where Flemish soldiers thought they were being driven to an untimely
death by Francophone officers who did not speak their language. Politi-
cally, Flemish nationalism can take various guises: from a demand for an
independent Flemish republic, to a reunification with the Netherlands, to
a federalized Belgium, and so on. More than the collaboration of a small
number of Flemish nationalists with the German occupiers during World
War I (which led some Francophones to nickname the Flemish Boches [a
derogatory term for Germans] or Flaminboches), the introduction of uni-
versal male suffrage in 1919 allowed for the politicization of Flemish
demands, as politicians had to try to win the favor of a predominantly
Dutchophone electorate.
During the 1930s, the Flemish Movement became infused with a strong
antidemocratic tendency at a time when its cultural requests (the Dutchifi-
cation of the administration, the army, the judiciary, and education
throughout Flanders) were all but met. Confronted with Walloon demands
for freedom of language choice for the inhabitants of Flanders and Brus-
sels and a unilingual regime in Wallonia, the Flemish Movement adapted
the Walloon Movement’s idea of territorially based languages, switching
attention to Brussels: the ongoing verfransing (Frenchification) of the his-
torically Dutchophone capital and its Flemish hinterland reinforced the
view that the linguistic integrity of the Flemish region as a whole must be
At the start of World War II, the leadership of the right-wing, antide-
mocratic Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Nationaal Verbond chose Ger-
many’s side. Although there is no significant difference between the num-
ber of Dutchophones and Francophones who collaborated with the Nazis
(Huyse 1991), the ideological connections between extreme right-wing
Flemish nationalism and Nazism have done much to discredit the Flemish
Movement as a whole in the eyes of many Francophones, who subsequently
took to calling Flemings clericofascists (Kesteloot 2002:15). After World
War II, a public referendum was held over the question of whether King
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 155

Leopold III, who had tried to strike a deal with Hitler, should be allowed to
reassume the throne. The electorate voted for the king’s return with a nar-
row margin: by and large, Flanders voted yes, while Wallonia voted no.
Many Walloons interpreted the yes-vote as an indication that an antidemo-
cratic, conservative Flanders was trying to impose its rule upon a democra-
tic, progressive Wallonia. The consultation brought the country to the
brink of civil war, and Leopold III was forced to abdicate in favor of his
eldest son, Baudouin I.

The Federalization of the State

Fixing the Linguistic Border

In 1963, the linguistic frontier was frozen and four linguistic regions were
established on the assumption that the country consists of linguistic com-
munities whose integrity must be respected: Dutchophone Flanders, Fran-
cophone Wallonia, a small Germanophone corner in Wallonia, and Brus-
sels, composed of nineteen bilingual (French and Dutch) municipalities
(including the capital, Brussels) that are located wholly in Flanders. This
entailed finding a compromise between the Flemish principle of territori-
ality (territorialiteitsprincipe), which privileges the integrity of linguistic
regions, and the Francophone principle of personality (principe de person-
nalité), which privileges the rights of individual citizens. Roughly speaking,
the Flemish invoked the rights of the collectivity on behalf of the socially
disadvantaged, while Francophones asserted the rights of the individual on
behalf of the socially dominant (Lorwin 1974:198). By and large, the idea
that rights are invested in regions, not individuals, held. Deciding where
provincial and communal boundaries had to be modified so as to coincide
as closely as possible with the linguistic frontier, parliament transferred
twenty-five municipalities (some 87,000 inhabitants) from Flanders to Wal-
lonia and twenty-four (some 23,000 inhabitants) in the opposite direction
(Hooghe 1991:13). In addition, the introduction of so-called facilities in a
number of Flemish and Walloon communes along the linguistic frontier
and in six municipalities in the Flemish hinterland of Brussels gave their
sizeable minorities the right to administration and education in their
mother tongue. These six municipalities subsequently Gallicized, not in
the least because they attract Francophones who might not otherwise be
enticed to reside in Flanders (Koppen et al. 2002), some of whom consider
Dutch inferior or are not inclined to learn other languages (Janssens
2002:331–32). Many Francophones continue associating Dutch with an
antidemocratic, conservative Flanders (Mettewie 1998), while many Flem-
ings remain resentful of Francophone snobbishness toward Dutch lan-
guage and culture and their assumptions of cultural and/or political supe-
riority (Lorwin 1974:197).
156 African Studies Review

Most Francophones insist upon their right to speak French throughout

the country and believe that state institutions ought to give Flemish Fran-
cophones the right to remain Francophone indefinitely. By contrast, the
majority of Flemings stress that newcomers must speak the local language in
much the same way that one adopts a local tongue when moving abroad,
and they consider “facilities” a temporary measure that must be suspended
as soon as Francophones are fully Dutchified. Legally, the Flemish argument
does not hold up (Distelmans & Koppen 2002), but the federal (bilingual)
Court of Arbitration, which has exclusive jurisdiction to supervise the con-
stitutional division of powers in the federalized state, has systematically
upheld the notion that territoriality is not an ethnographical observation
but a juridical recognition of the principle that the regional language will
serve as the administrative language, irrespective of local
inhabitants/authorities’ private language use (Koppen 2002:59, n.17). A
recent directive by the Flemish Social-Democratic minister Leo Peeters stip-
ulates that Francophones in Flemish facility communes must specifically ask
to be addressed in French when they are involved with official municipality
business. Francophones consider this a form of harassment, but the Court
of Arbitration agrees with the principle, since for Flemish municipalities to
make up a register of their Francophone inhabitants would amount to a lan-
guage census, and these have been outlawed since 1961.

Secularization and Depillarization

Between 1966 and 1968, Dutchophone anticlerical students at Leuven’s
bilingual Catholic University, situated in the Flemish region, challenged
the Church’s authoritarian leadership as well as the system of pillarization.
While some students identified with the American civil rights movement,
all opposed the presence of Francophones, whom they accused of consti-
tuting an elitist caste, on the grounds that the university should be firmly
“rooted” in the local Flemish community (Goossens 1993:17). They found
allies in more conservative members of the Flemish-minded middle class,
who wanted above all to abolish Francophone education in Flanders. The
successful campaign “Walen buiten!” (Walloons out!) led to the Dutchifi-
cation of education throughout Flanders. It invigorated the Flemish left,
and paved the way for secularization, ontzuiling (depillarization), and fed-
eralization. After the federal government fell over the issue, mainstream
parties were split into Flemish and Francophone wings, which no longer
canvas all over the country (Hooghe 1991:5).
The decline of pillarization and the ongoing secularization created a
floating electorate that regrouped itself around new social movements and
plural regionalist parties outside the pillarized system, which managed to
attract voters across the traditional left-right divide. If not all of these new
regionalist parties are extremist, they all rely upon a bifurcation between
“us” and “them” that can take various forms. Simultaneously, Flemish
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 157

nationalism has become increasingly republican and anticlerical, not in the

least because many believe that Flemings have been insufficiently rewarded
for their long-term allegiance to the monarchy and to Church leaders, who
they feel have been, at best, indifferent to Flemish demands.

From the 1960s onward, as the economic center of gravity shifted from the
south to the north, many Walloons accused the state of refusing to invest
in their region’s dying industry and started making regionalist claims
against “L’État Belgo-Flamand” (the Belgian-Flemish state). Since 1970 the
national government has had to contain an equal number of Dutchophone
and Francophone ministers, apart from the prime minister. The “alarm
bell procedure,” introduced the same year, prevents one linguistic com-
munity from pushing through a law unilaterally by assuring that all future
changes to the Belgian institutional framework require not only a two-
thirds majority but also a 50 percent majority in each group. While this has
led radical Flemish nationalists to conclude that Belgium is a country in
which a majority is dominated by a minority, many Francophones continue
thinking that they are the victims of the imperialism of a Flemish majority.
Federalization grew out of Flemings’ and Walloons’ demands for more
autonomy from the central state. Introduced in 1980, it has mapped onto
the four linguistic regions three communities (Flemish, French, German)
for cultural matters and three regions (Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia) for
economic and regional matters, each with their own separate legislative
bodies and executives. For the Francophone majority, region and commu-
nity do not coincide. In Wallonia, economic decline and federalization
have hampered the development of a shared Francophone identity with
Francophones in Brussels (some regionalist Walloons are hostile to what
they call “L’État Belgo-Bruxellois”) and at the same time have strengthened
the power of the Parti Socialiste (PS). In Flanders, where region and com-
munity coincide, economic prosperity and federalization have fragmented
the internal political landscape and chrystalized cultural differences
between Flemings and Francophones inside and outside the region, on the
one hand, and between Flemings and the Dutch on the other. Tradition-
ally, Flanders’ cultural elite thought usage of standard Dutch would chal-
lenge French’s universalistic claims; now, an increasing number of Flem-
ings identify with an autochthonized form of Dutch, against Dutchophones
in the Netherlands, whom they accuse of linguistic imperialism.

Flemish Ethnic versus Walloon Civic Citizenship?

It is often argued that Flemings’ ideal of ethnic citizenship makes them less
tolerant of ethnic diversity and that Walloons are more tolerant of it on
account of their norm of civil citizenship (Caestecker 2000, 2001; Martens
158 African Studies Review

& Caestecker 2001). If one agrees that the West eliminates its “Others” by
annihilating or assimilating them (Bauman 1993), this interpretation holds
up only if one accepts the idea that Wallonia’s assimilationist policies
toward “foreigners” are less racist than Flanders’ willingness to accommo-
date and subsidize ethnic civic associations. In addition, the rhetoric of the
Walloon Movement draws upon its own notions of ethnic citizenship. It
contains many references to specific ethnic qualities of Walloons such as
language, culture, and moral values. It shows a preoccupation with the Wal-
loon soil as a value in itself whose (French) monolingualism must be main-
tained at all costs. It also argues that individuals belong to the Walloon
nation by virtue of their blood, their “race,” descent, or historical destiny
(Vanginderachter 2004).
Quantitative research confirms that Flemings with a Flemish and Wal-
loons with a Belgian identification tend to have a negative attitude toward
Muslim labor immigrants and their descendants, while Flemings with a Bel-
gian and Walloons with a Walloon identification view them more positively
(Maddens et al. 2000). However, in 1989, 67 percent of Walloon adults,
compared to 57 percent of Flemish adults, thought that immigrants abuse
Belgium’s social security system, and 60 percent of Walloons, as opposed to
40 percent of Flemings, accused them of jeopardizing Belgians’ employ-
ment (Swyngedouw 1998b:124). In addition, research based upon a num-
ber of attitudes—including negative feelings toward “foreigners,” authori-
tarianism, distrust of state institutions, political dissatisfaction, and so on—
suggests that Walloons would be more receptive than Flemings to a radical
right rhetoric (Coffé 2005). Nevertheless, there is no Francophone
autochthony movement comparable to VB. In the aftermath of the fixing
of the linguistic border, two localist parties with a translocal appeal devel-
oped in Francophone Belgium, both of which greatly influenced
national/federal politics. Yet unlike VB, neither managed to become large
enough to pose a genuine threat to mainstream parties.

Francophone Localist Discourses

Voeren: Retour à Liège (RàL)

The six communes that have made up the single municipality of Voeren
since 1976 are equidistant from the Walloon city of Liège and Maastricht
in the Netherlands. Cut off from Flanders, their inhabitants, who tend
their own farms or commute to work in Wallonia, share a dialect with their
Dutch neighbors across the border. In 1963, the communes were trans-
ferred from the province of Liège to the Flemish province of Limburg after
nine months of difficult parliamentary debates and after two governments
had fallen over the issue (Deprez & Wynants 1987:713).
While for most Flemings outside the region the Flemishness of
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 159

the people of Voeren was not in doubt because they speak a Dutch
dialect, these people themselves tended to think of Flemings as
“aliens.” In ‘s Gravenvoeren, one of the six communes, the opposition
between “Dutchophones” and “Francophones,” which initially referred to
political differences rather than actual language use, was built upon an
older opposition between two local factions. One described itself as Belgian
patriots and construed its opponents as Flemish nationalists, “foreigners”
(to both the village and the nation), Germans, or Nazis. The other accused
its opponents of being “aliens” who were not born and bred in the com-
mune (Van Laar 1988:41–42). The rhetoric of the Flemish Movement was
introduced into the region mainly by nonlocal priests, and the first locals
to acquire a Flemish identity were men who had left their communes to
pursue secondary education elsewhere and had gained in school a sense of
common identity with Dutchophone students from other localities, includ-
ing Leuven (Van Laar 1988:104–5). French drew its prestige from its asso-
ciation with the local politicoeconomic elite and from the Liégois econ-
omy, Dutch from its connection with the Catholic Church; many local
“Flemings” were Catholics first and Flemings only second (Debougnoux
The local Flemish elite supported the transfer for fear that the influ-
ence of the industrialized, predominantly Socialist province of Liège would
change the political affiliation of the largely Catholic population; they
attracted the support of Flemings outside the region. Throughout the six
villages, the local Francophone elite led the resistance against the transfer
to Limburg (Van Laar 1993:42), arguing that in redrawing the linguistic
frontier, Flemings had undertaken a second attempt (after World War I) to
create a territorial corridor between Flanders and Germany (Debougnoux
1986:19; Van Laar 1988:83; Verjans 1985:25).
The rural, unitarist RàL, which vainly fought the transfer, found an
unlikely ally in the urban, industrial, Socialist, and regionalist Mouvement
Populaire Wallon. Both parties agreed that Flanders had occupied Wallo-
nia and that for a second time, after the settling of the Royal Question, it
was tying to impose its will upon the population. Things came to a head
when RàL won the local elections in 1982 and promoted the candidacy of
José Happart as burgomaster. A Walloon newcomer with a mastery of nei-
ther the local dialect nor standard Dutch, Happart refused to speak Dutch
to strengthen the case that Voeren should have remained part of Wallonia.
In the eyes of Flemings in and outside the region, his lack of Dutch identi-
fied Happart as a “foreigner.” For local Francophones, the fact that he was
an ideological ally outweighed his status as a non-Catholic newcomer who
did not speak the local dialect. Flemings in the region and beyond thought
that Happart violated the law; for Francophones throughout Belgium, he
expressed the grievance of a majority who were denied the right to choose
their own language (Hooghe 1991:18). Far from being a trivial dorpsruzie
(village quarrel) that got out of hand (Van Istendael 1993:11), the political
160 African Studies Review

situation in Voeren had the potential of bringing Belgium to the brink of

civil war, pitting once again Catholic Dutchophones against Socialist Fran-
cophones. In the best consociational tradition, the government managed
to find a highly complex solution to what had seemed an unsolvable issue,
preventing Happart’s appointment (Hooghe 1991:87–90).
In 1984, Happart joined the PS and was elected to the European Par-
liament, with the highest number of votes in Francophone Belgium. His
inclusion split the PS between regionalists and unitarists who consider his
regionalism (he is opposed to the Francophone community and demands
for more regional autonomy for Wallonia) an aberration of true socialism
(Richard 1993:202). His comment that blacks in South Africa during the
apartheid era were better off than Francophones in Voeren enraged most
Flemings. When VB made its first electoral inroads in 1991, Happart vowed
that he would stop the breakthrough of the radical right in Wallonia.
Instead, the radical right Front National and Agir gained 10 percent of the
Francophone vote. Many Francophone Social Democrats saw this as proof
that a return to “true” socialism was necessary; some speculated that Hap-
part had driven erstwhile Social Democratic voters into the arms of the rad-
ical right while being especially popular among non-Socialist voters (Vaes
& Demelenne 1995:36,45). Since then, Happart has pursued a career in
regional government, surfacing in Flanders only when making populist
demands, such as the introduction of a twenty-five-hour workweek.
Flanders’ investment in Voeren’s sociocultural sector has been accom-
panied by a steady influx of Flemish newcomers. Together with Dutch
inhabitants who live in the region and speak the local dialect, they have
helped break RàL’s absolute majority in favor of the Flemish opposition.14
At one stage, they consulted the archives in order to prove that Count
Lionel de Sécillion, the local patron who had dominated local politics for
decades and who had orchestrated the opposition against the transfer to
Limburg, was a “foreigner,” a Breton whose family had gained its title dur-
ing the French occupation (Knack, March 22, 2000). While the presence of
Dutch who dominate the tourist industry causes some resentment, the new
Flemish burgomaster, Huub Broers, insists that they are not “foreigners”
but “true” locals (De Standaard, January 3, 2001). However, many Fran-
cophones feel that Flemings cheated them out of their majority by relying
upon the electoral support of these “foreigners” (De Standaard, January 31,

Brussels: Front Démocratique des Francophones (FDF)

Charles Baudelaire’s insightful comment that the inhabitants of Brussels
did not know French but pretended not to know any “Flemish” (cited in
Janssens 2001:43) highlights the extent to which in Brussels, the shift from
social exclusion to social integration historically has entailed Frenchifica-
tion. As in Voeren, the fact that most spoke a Dutch dialect did not mean
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 161

that the inhabitants of Brussels identified themselves as Flemish. By the

time the linguistic border was frozen, most considered themselves Fran-
cophone. Francophones generally concur. However, most Flemings main-
tain that Brussels is a Flemish city, because it is wholly located in Flanders
and was historically Dutchophone. Radical Flemish nationalists, including
VB, emphasize that its Francophone inhabitants are Gallicized Flemings
who must be re-Flemishized.
An offshoot of the Walloon Movement, FDF, was founded in 1964 by
Francophone Walloon Brusselers, who, despite their numerical majority,
felt threatened by Flemish demands. Radical Flemish nationalists insist that
the creation of the region of Brussels was driven by Francophones who real-
ized that they would be reduced to a negligible minority in Flanders and
wanted to isolate the capital’s Dutchophone inhabitants from Flemings in
Flanders. Adamant that Flemings aim to isolate the capital’s Francophone
majority from Wallonia, FDF wants to extend the city’s boundaries to the
facility communes in the Flemish periphery, which border on Wallonia.
Favoring the growth of an international, French-speaking city, FDF turned
the Parti Québecois’ slogan, “Québecois, maître chez soi,” into “Bruxellois,
maître chez toi” (FDF 1978). It considers Flemings “alien colonizers” who
have no right to meddle in Brussels’ politics and to choose it as the capital
of the Flemish region and community. According to Arvi Sepp (1998), the
party systematically contrasts a Francophone homo democraticus to a Flemish
homo tyrannicus. Some of its most notorious electoral propaganda has
equated Flemings with Nazis, apparently oblivious to the fact that their
demand for a “corridor” between Brussels and Wallonia is similar to some
Francophones’ suggestion that Flemings wanted to establish a “corridor”
between Flanders and Germany by transferring Voeren to Flanders.
FDF first gained mass support among white-collar workers who feared
the loss of their privileged position when bilingualism became a legal
requirement for certain jobs (Deschouwer 1982, cited in Buelens & Van
Dyck 1998:58). While no longer opposed to the Brussels administration’s
official bilingualism, it invokes the principle of personality to demand the
right of its civil servants to speak either French or Dutch. According to FDF,
the language legislation deprives Brussels of thousands of jobs that should
go to the capital’s inhabitants, not the tens of thousands of Flemings who
commute from Flanders to Brussels daily (Deschouwer 1982, cited in Bue-
lens & Van Dyck 1998:60).
During the 1970s, the Wallonia-born FDF burgomaster Roger Nols
from the Brussels municipality of Schaerbeek enraged Flemish sensibilities
by setting up separate counters for Dutchophones (and non-Belgian
nationals) in the Town Hall, leading to complaints of apartheid. Forced to
back down, he subsequently tried to woo the electorate with Islamophobic
propaganda. Some Francophone (Social Democratic and Liberal) burgo-
masters in the Brussels region agreed that their municipalities could not
accommodate more than 25 percent of non-EU nationals. In 1984, the
162 African Studies Review

then Francophone Liberal vice-minister, Jean Gol, granted six Brussels

municipalities the right not to register unwanted “foreigners” until 1990
(Bouveroux 1996:41–42).15 That same year, Nols hosted Jean-Marie Le Pen
of the French Front National in the Town Hall and left FDF. As an inde-
pendent candidate on Gol’s PRL list for the European elections, he
became the most popular Francophone politician after Happart, and for
very similar reasons. In 1999 he was a candidate for a radical right party, but
failed to repeat his earlier electoral successes.
From 1965 to 1971, FDF was the largest party in Brussels. Between 1968
and 1981 it set up a coalition in the national parliament with the Rassem-
blement Wallon (RW), despite the fact that the only glue holding together
the capital’s mainly unitarist, Liberal voters and Wallonia’s regionalist,
Social Democratic electorate was their shared aversion to l’état belgo-fla-
mand. RW was part of one national government coalition in 1974; FDF has
been part of three (1977–78, 1978, and 1979–80). A coalition partner in
the Brussels executive/parliament since 1989, FDF has been forced to team
up with Flemish-nationalist parties Volksunie (VU) and Spirit, a collabora-
tion that works remarkably well (Buelens & Van Dyck 1998:65). FDF and
PRL now form Le Mouvement Reformateur, which voted in favor of
extending the suffrage to non-EU nationals in 2004 and is a coalition part-
ner in the current federal government. One of its junior ministers, Gisèle
Mandaila Malamba, of Congolese descent, is a member of FDF.

Vlaams Blok and the Rise of Flemish Autochthony Discourses

Over the last decades Vlaams Blok (subsequently Vlaams Belang—VB) has
become the largest Flemish party, its power held in check only by the cor-
don sanitaire that prevents mainstream Flemish parties from setting up
coalitions with it. This is quite surprising in several respects. Since there are
no national parties that bridge the Flemish-Wallon divide, and since Flem-
ish politicians must court mainly Flemish voters, the federalization has
turned all Flemish politicians into Flemish nationalists insofar that they try
to court Flemish voters as Flemings, whether by conviction or opportunis-
tically. Even then, it may seem odd that a majority of the electorate, which
is in favor of the maintenance of Belgium as a federalized, constitutional
monarchy and belongs to a trade union, should vote for a party with a sep-
aratist, corporatist agenda.
In this last section, I will explain why its autochthony discourse has
allowed VB to broaden its appeal beyond the radical right-wing fringe to
which it initially belonged. I argue that VB successfully taps into Flemings’
strong sense of localism and municipalism at a time when depillarization
has cut off voters from political patrons and when the amalgamation of
communes and regional, national, and supranational administrations have
eroded the political autonomy of municipalities. On the surface, VB’s
rhetoric is deceptively simple. Its program is neatly summarized in its slo-
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 163

gans: “‘Eigen volk eerst” (One’s own people first), “Baas in eigen land”
(Boss in one’s own country), and “Thuis zijn” (Being home), all of which
tap into the reflexive self-image of the underdog that Flemings have culti-
vated since the dawn of the Flemish Movement (Lorwin 1974:199;
Reynebeau 1995:245–46). In reality, the category of “one’s own people” is
not clearly defined. In its attempt to exclude “foreigners” from the benefits
of the welfare state, VB cleverly combines two discourses: a prenational,
localist rhetoric that (as the situation in Voeren shows), easily (re-)classifies
local political opponents as “foreigners”; and a Flemish nationalist
rhetoric, forged in the aftermath of Belgian state-building, that portrays
Francophones as Flemings’ major historical enemy. Scale-jumping between
local communities, Flanders, Belgium, and Europe allows VB to define and
redefine different categories of people as “foreigners,” from disenfran-
chised Muslim immigrants and asylum-seekers to Francophone Belgians.
Indeed, it would seem that behind the ever-changing array of various
allochthons lurks the Francophone co-citizen as the enduring and ultimate
“Other” who stands accused of trying to impose a Gallicized culture and/or
feeding off Flemish labor.

The Rise of VB in Antwerp and Beyond

VB first made electoral inroads at the municipal level, more specifically in
Antwerp, Flanders’ largest city and home to a visible orthodox Jewish
minority. Until the 1960s, politics in Antwerp were dominated by Socialists,
but it has always been an important Flemish-nationalist bulwark.
From the 1960s onward, the decline of pillarization and the economic
recession coincided with a counterexodus of Antwerp’s urban working
class to socially mixed neighborhoods outside town. In the process, pillars
lost their grassroots volunteers and activists in inner-city neighborhoods at
the same time that depillarization had reduced the political power of trade
unions. In response, national politicians tried to woo a floating electorate
by increasing clientelism. When Antwerp was amalgamated with neighbor-
ing communes in 1982, voters in the boroughs lost personalized access to
local political patrons. Strapped for cash, the municipality invested insuffi-
ciently in impoverished neighborhoods, whose inhabitants felt surrounded
by “foreigners,” alienated, betrayed, and abandoned by the municipality
(cf. Klein 2000). From the 1990s onward, VB stepped into the void, recy-
cling anti-Semitic slogans of the 1930s to scapegoat Muslim immigrants and
setting itself up as the champion of erstwhile Socialist voters (Swyngedouw
1998a; 1998b:125).
Gradually, the party has broadened its appeal outside inner-city neigh-
borhoods by focusing on Catholics with conservative views on issues such as
abortion, euthanasia, and gay rights, and Liberals who are in favor of more
law and order. Its rhetoric, which contrasts permanent inhabitants of local
neighborhoods to “alien squatters” (cf. Holy 1998:131), or Christian
164 African Studies Review

“locals” who have pride in their homes to Muslim labor immigrants “living
on the streets” (cf. Van San & Leerkes 2001:95), also taps into the fears of
rural, middle-class Flemings, who feel equally alienated from politicians. As
most mainstream parties have tried to fight VB by taking over some of its
themes about “foreigners” and law and order, the traditional left-right
opposition in Flanders has been redefined (Blommaert 2005).
Throughout Flanders, the amalgamation of municipalities has
increased the geographical and social distance between the centers of deci-
sion-making and residential areas (Ackaert & Dekien 1989:321; Delmartino
1982:584). Through the amalgamations, the national parties tried to
increase their grip on the local electorate at the cost of local parties,
though it remains to be seen to what extent local sections of national par-
ties are local (Deschouwer 1994), regional, or federal (Dewachter 1982).
While the number of local lists has been greatly reduced, they have proved
most resilient in small rural communes (Ackaert 1992: 587). The impact of
regional, federal, and supranational politics, combined with professionali-
sation and gentrification (Reynaert 1997:52), has reduced political fac-
tionalism and the bifurcation in sociocultural life that once accompanied
To paraphrase Anthony Cohen (2000:148), the peripherality that
many VB voters now experience is a geographical fact, but it also provides
some substance for a depiction of local communities as somehow remote
from the centers of power and decision-making. Equating geographical dis-
tance with neglect and political powerlessness, VB voters can contrast the
authentic values of their peripheral communities with the vacuity and
superficiality of local, regional, and/or federal governments. Many VB vot-
ers see themselves as “the people” rising up against forms of centralized
authority that pay no heed to grassroots sentiments, as when a center for
asylum-seekers was imposed on municipalities (cf. Pred 2000:189–92).
They are attracted to a discourse that foregrounds various types of “Others”
as “aliens” in order to protest that “their” politicians are seemingly more
concerned with “foreigners” than with the electorate. Trying to reclaim the
“local” as an “unpolluted” and unmediated scale for political life (Agnew
1994), they express their mobilization against “Others” through a vote for
an “other,” that is, an antiestablishment party outside the pillarized system.

Welfare Chauvinism
Unlike many Francophones who have long identified with an international
culture they deem superior, many Flemings consider themselves hereditary
victims (Bauman 1998) of all sorts of haughty imperialists (French, Dutch,
Francophones, Anglophones) and indolent scroungers (Francophones,
allochthons, asylum-seekers) parasitizing on their labor or profits.
Flemish nationalists across the political spectrum are concerned that
the Anglophone culture of affluent expatriates poses a greater threat to the
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 165

Flemish language and culture than does the culture of poor Muslim labor
immigrants and their descendants. However, animosity against so-called
Eurocrats has not captured the popular imagination outside communes
affected by their presence.16 Like Antwerp’s visible Hassidic community,
many of whom are involved in its diamond industry, Eurocrats are eco-
nomically autarkic and an important source of revenue for Flanders. This
goes some way to explain why VB openly courts the Jewish vote in Antwerp
(Ha’aretz, August 29, 2005).
Contrary to earlier predictions, depillarization—which, as we have
seen, is more pronounced in Flanders than in Wallonia—has not made for
more tolerance. The term biefstuksocialisme (beefsteak socialism) refers to
the shift from a group-oriented and pillarized culture to an individualized
consumer culture. Far from closing the gap between the working and mid-
dle classes, this new consumer culture has exacerbated the differences
between those who want to extend the benefits of the welfare state to
“aliens” and those who want to guard these benefits for their “own people.”
Thus far, Social-Democratic voters have been most susceptible to VB’s
racism and Christian-Democratic voters the least, but this has probably less
to do with Christian, as opposed to Socialist, values (Billiet et al. 1999) than
with the legacy of pillarization: Christian-Democrats can only defend the
rights of employers and employees alike by upholding an ideal of class
cooperation while many Socialist voters seem to have substituted the
socioeconomic class war between employees and employers with a cultur-
alized opposition between hard-working Flemings and lazy “foreigners.”17
The continuity between an old hierarchical model based upon class and a
new one based upon culture linked to primordialism, which disrupts class
solidarity and collaboration, goes some way to explain why members of
trade unions have less positive perceptions of allochthons than members of
other civic organizations do (Hooghe 2003).18 Welfare chauvinism is there-
fore crucial for understanding the appeal of exclusionary populism in Flan-
ders. According to Kitschelt (1995:261–62):

As long as “minimalist” welfare states represent nothing but the equivalent

of a private market insurance system in which people receive benefits
strictly in proportion to their contributions based on calculations of their
actuarial risk to the insurer, the influx of new residents from a hitherto
nonexistent or very small ethnic grouping does not undermine the public
acceptance of social programs. Where a comprehensive welfare state goes
beyond the insurance principle, however, and redistributes funds from
contributors to beneficiaries, a changing ethnic balance does matter. . . .
Net contributors to the welfare state . . . are most willing to accept redis-
tribution to the less fortunate where they can envision that they them-
selves could, in theory, be in the same predicament that calls for social
benefits. By definition, immigrants are excluded from that comparison
when residents see them not as members of the “club” that redistributes
internal funds. In a similar vein, while members may accept welfare state
166 African Studies Review

policies for the sake of producing the “club goods” of social solidarity, this
principle would not cover individuals who want to become members of
the club in the first place.19

From One “Other” to Another

The Flemish administration officially recognizes individual allochthons as

persons who are legal residents in Belgium, who have at least one parent or
grandparent who was born outside the country, and who are discriminated
against on the basis of their ethnic descent and/or their weak socioeco-
nomic status, irrespective of their place of birth or nationality. But the
Flemish administration has been reluctant to put in place policies that
might end their discrimination as members of a specific group. In the polit-
ical domain, there are quotas for Flemings and Francophones (there is lin-
guistic parity in the Brussels and federal governments) and for women
(who must make up half of all candidates at local, regional, federal, and
European elections), but all mainstream Flemish parties are hostile to affir-
mative action for allochthons in the labor market. It is estimated that 40
percent of all allochthons are unemployed; 39.2 percent of Flemish
employers said they would refuse to hire allochthons, notably Moroccans
(Balancier 2004:252–53), and in 2004 the majority of complaints against
racism (17%) lodged by the federal Centre for Equal Opportunities and
Opposition to Racism (CEOOR) were related to racism at work. Neverthe-
less, many mainstream politicians blame this on allochthons’ culture rather
than on institutionalized racism.20 When it transpired in early 2005 that
the managers of a Flemish company had refused to employ allochthons
because they believed that the presence of such employees would be bad
for business, and that a Flemish training organization declined to train
Muslim women wearing a veil because they believed that this would render
them unemployable, many Flemings in the press and on Internet forums
defended employers’ individual right to freely chose their employees.21 In
2006 the Flemish Socialist minister for Labor agreed with employers that
access to some vacancies would be restricted during the first weeks to
allochthons, people with a physical handicap, and the elderly. Always keen
to spot racism against autochthons, VB immediately threatened to lodge a
complaint for discrimination with the CEOOR, which it wants to abolish.
This threat is fairly typical of the party’s twisted rhetoric.
In its propaganda aimed at Francophone voters in Brussels, VB failed
to mention until recently that it wants to incorporate the city into a Flem-
ish republic.22 VB argues that “foreigners” sponge off “our” (Belgian) wel-
fare state despite rejecting the legitimacy of the Belgian state, but it also
accuses Francophones of feeding off Flemish labor. The party’s bold
images of the Islamification of local landmarks link local concerns to inter-
national migratory movements (Blommaert 2005). It demonizes Muslim
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 167

labor descendants and their offspring, associating them with “street crime,
social security milking, Islamic fundamentalism, discrimination against
women, traffic in drugs, urban housing deterioration, cultural uprooting
and anomy, etc.” (Roosens 1994:94). It opposes Turkey’s membership in
the European Union on the grounds that its Muslim culture would be alien
to Europe’s Christian culture, despite the fact that many party leaders are
self-avowed pagans who consider Christianity a foreign import (De Zutter
2000). But in a recent attempt to protest against a new traffic plan in two
Brussels communes, its Francophone deputy, Johan Demol, distributed a
leaflet in Turkish to gain the support of Turkish inhabitants (Brussel Deze
Week, July 14, 2005). Simultaneously, it paints a gloomy picture of “one’s
own people” being threatened by various types of “foreigners”: Anglo-
phones, asylum-seekers, Eastern European “thieves,” Eurocrats, Francoph-
ones, Muslims, illegal immigrants, non-European labor immigrants, “nig-
gers,” refugees, Walloons, and so on (Arnaut & Ceuppens 2004). It depicts
its Flemish distracters and the Flemish political establishment as enemies
of the “people.”

“Franse ratten rolt uw matten” (French rats, Roll up your mats)

The Flemish Movement has always identified being Flemish with speaking
Dutch, as epitomized in the slogan “de taal is gans het volk” (Language is
the whole people). If, therefore, proficiency in Dutch is taken as a measure
of social integration, one can justify allochthons’ exclusion by assuming
that their command of Dutch is poor. Despite ample evidence to the con-
trary (Jaspers 2005), it is often taken for granted that allochthons, includ-
ing those born and bred in Flanders, do not master Dutch fully. Although
the right to decent housing is enshrined in the federal constitution, in
2005 the Flemish administration made the allocation of social housing in
an extremely competitive market conditional upon the completion of a
Dutch language course. The Flemish municipality of Zemst near Brussels
has decided that it will sell municipal land only to individuals who speak
Dutch or who are willing, similarly, to study the language (De Standaard,
August 10, 2005). Many Francophones are convinced that such policies tar-
get Francophones rather than allochthons.
Thus far, Belgium has failed to ratify the European Framework Con-
vention for the Protection of National Minorities for fear that this would
imply the recognition of Francophones in Flanders and Dutchophones in
Wallonia. Indeed, VB’s idea that individual allochthons should assimilate
or “return home” (“aanpassen of opkrassen”) draws on older Flemish
nationalist rhetoric that urges Franskiljons (Gallicized Flemings) to speak
Dutch or get out (Ceuppens 2001; Swyngedouw 1998b).23 One VB mem-
ber who left the party in protest against its anti-immigrant agenda consid-
ers allochthons allies who can help turn the (Francophone) tide in Brus-
sels (where one-third of all inhabitants are non-Belgian nationals), pro-
168 African Studies Review

vided that they assimilate fully, including adopting Flemish-sounding

names (Peeters 1997). Dirk Wilmars (1968) interprets the continued exis-
tence of Francophone Flemings as a psychological phenomenon that can
be cured only if these mentally unstable people will learn to speak Dutch
as their first language. This is exemplary of the widespread assumption that
it is “natural” for the inhabitants of Flanders to speak Dutch, and it proves
the extent to which an erstwhile Catholic and conservative idea about the
God-given relations between ethnicity, culture, and language (Meeuwis
1999) has become mainstream while being desecularized.
The decision of the Flemish administration to encourage allochthons
to emancipate themselves through their own civil organizations is in line
with the emancipation of the working class and Flemings through pillar-
ization. By contrast, its refusal to subsidize Francophone associations in
Flanders or allow the Francophone community to do so highlights the
Flemish notion that being Francophone in Flanders is a political rather
than cultural identity: the political emancipation of Francophones through
subsidized organizations must be curbed lest it feed their demand for polit-
ical rights. Against Francophones who fear that Flemings colonize Fran-
cophones by virtue of their numerical majority within the state and their
economic affluence, many Flemings remain convinced that Francophones
are colonizing them by imposing their language and showing a glaring dis-
respect for Flemish language and culture.24 Paraphrasing Pnina Werbner
(2005), they consider Flanders’ Francophones “witches” whose public
Flemish personae mask an allegiance to a “alien” culture.
The anthropologist Eugeen Roosens (1998), who calls primordialist
autochthony “natural,” describes Flemings as squeezed between poor
(Muslim) and rich (expatriate) allochthons, and compares Francophones
and Eurocrats with colonizers who want to impose their own cultures upon
others (see also Tastenhoye 1993). The phenomenon whereby affluent
newcomers drive up property values and force out locals is not peculiar to
Brussels and its Flemish hinterland. Nevertheless, many Flemings analyze
this development as a sociocultural rather than a socioeconomic problem,
linking social exclusion (of poor Flemings) to cultural exclusion (of Flem-
ish culture) and accusing Eurocrats of trying to Gallicize the region (Tas-
tenhoye 1991). The Flemish administration concurs, investing dispropor-
tionally in social housing for Dutchophones (Meert 1993:131).
Officially, the Francophone inhabitants of the six facility-communes in
Brussels’ Flemish hinterland are the only Francophones on Flemish soil.25
The municipalities are part of Belgium’s largest and only bilingual parlia-
mentary constituency, Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde (B-H-V), whose existence is
considered an anomaly since Halle and Vilvoorde are officially monolin-
gual. The Court of Arbitration has decided that the constituency must be
split, meaning that (Francophone) residents of the six facility communes
will no longer be able to return Francophone politicians to the federal,
regional, or European parliaments. Francophone parties are willing to
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 169

accept this ruling on the condition that the bilingual region of Brussels be
extended into some of the surrounding Flemish-speaking areas, creating a
territorial corridor to Wallonia. For Flemings, the fixation of the linguistic
border is nonnegotiable.
The program of the new Flemish government, inaugurated in 2004,
included an agreement on the part of all mainstream Flemish parties to
split up B-H-V into a bilingual Brussels and a unilingual Flemish con-
stituency. These parties subsequently put the question on the federal
agenda, forcing the federal government to resolve it. As the crisis unfolded
during the spring of 2005, Flemish political commentators and Flemish
nationalists flexed their muscles in the media and Internet forums, describ-
ing Francophone demands as yet another “kaakslag voor Vlaanderen” (a
slap in the face for Flanders) and insisting that they would not concede
“een morzel grond” (a single scrap of land). Accusations of Francophone
imperialism flew thick and fast: “Imagine an independent Flanders. It isn’t
hard to do. No king to pay for, and no Walloons too” (http://forum.poli-
tics.be). The radical Flemish nationalist Taalaktiekomité (Language action
commmittee) described Francophones as occupiers intent on annexing
the province of Flemish Brabant in which Brussels is situated (www.taalak-
tiekomite.org). Happart made Flemish headlines again, suggesting that in
exchange for the split, Voeren should receive a biregional status.
When the negotiations failed, the federal government refused to
resign, realizing that the population is largely indifferent to the matter.26
Flemish politicians from all mainstream parties were quick to blame Fran-
cophones for the debacle, apparently oblivious to the fact that they had
created the problem by agreeing among themselves to resolve an issue
beyond their jurisdiction. The Flemish Christian-Democratic prime minis-
ter, Yves Leterme, pledged to increase investments in the six communes
and drew an unfavorable comparison between their Francophone inhabi-
tants who refuse to assimilate by speaking Dutch and the Moroccan-born
Dutchophone Naïma Amzil. (In 2005 Amzil gained the spotlight after her
employer received eight anonymous letters from a previously unknown
organization, Nieuw Vrij Vlaanderen [New Free Flanders], threatening
death to him and his family if he refused to fire his Muslim employee who
wore a headscarf.)
The problem of B-H-V is as unsolvable as that of Voeren, but this time
the federal government seems unable to find a complex solution in the
best consociational tradition, because the lines are drawn along ethnolin-
guistic rather than ideological lines: even Flemings and Francophones who
share the same political ideology now confront one another as opposing
blocks. It looks indeed as if increasingly, Flemish antiforeign rhetoric tar-
gets Francophones (who do not all share a common identity) rather than
allochthons (Arnaut & Ceuppens 2004). If allochthons are routinely taken
to task for being culturally different from Flemings, many Flemings take
the cultural differences between Flemings and Francophones so much for
170 African Studies Review

granted that they consider an imminent breakup of the country inevitable:

Flemish and Francophone cultures are said to differ too much to allow
politicians from the north and south to agree upon key policies.
While VB’s economic program entails little more than expelling all
“foreigners” and cutting the country in two, Flemish politicians from main-
stream parties have adopted its demand, shared by many Flemish national-
ists, that social security be federalized to stop what they see as a Flemish
subsidizing of the defunct Walloon economy. At the same time, while the
Walloon regional government now pursues a “Marshall Plan” to turn its for-
tunes around, Walloon demands for greater Walloon autonomy or inde-
pendence have become muted, not in the least because there is an aware-
ness that Wallonia cannot go it alone: federalism and rattachisme (a “return”
to France) are now more popular than regionalism.27 Many Walloon
Socialists consider social security, not the monarchy, as the glue keeping
Belgium’s communities and regions together. Francophones systematically
talk about national (federal) solidarity and remind Flemings that until the
first part of the twentieth century, the rich Walloon industry supported
poor Flanders and welcomed thousands of Flemish labor immigrants
(many Walloon politicians have Flemish forebears). By contrast, Flemings
increasingly use the expression “regional transfers.”
In an interview that was hotly debated on both sides of the linguistic
frontier, the then Flemish Social-Democratic federal vice-prime minister,
Johan Vande Lanotte (now his party’s leader), blamed Francophones for
the B-H-V fiasco, adding that they risked achieving the breakup of the
country they wanted to avoid at all cost. He insisted that in return for their
solidarity with Wallonia, Flemings demand the recognition of Flanders’ lin-
guistic integrity—the splitting of B-H-V (Humo, May 24, 2005). This com-
ment marked a further erosion of the concept of federal solidarity by mak-
ing it conditional upon the recognition of Flemish group claims. This can
be seen as an extension of the concept of the active welfare state (see Gid-
dens 1998), which the Belgian federal and Flemish regional governments
now embrace. It disrupts the idea of automatic, national solidarity (Holmes
2000; Verschueren 2003) by making it conditional upon certain criteria.
Since 1973 all federal prime ministers have been Flemish: Flemings
would never accept a prime minister who belongs to a minority and who
does not master Dutch, and Francophone politicians who are fluent in
Dutch are rare. When the Walloon president of the PS, Elio Di Rupo (son
of Italian labor immigrants), took Dutch lessons and started speaking
Dutch publicly, many Flemings interpreted this as a sign that he was prepar-
ing for a future role as prime minister. He insists that speaking Dutch is a
matter of courtesy. But while ready to believe that Francophones as a class
look down on Flemish culture, many Flemings are suspicious of individual
Francophone politicians who express a public interest in it. For them, the
prospect of Di Rupo becoming the country’s prime minister is inconceiv-
able, ostensibly because he is a member of the country’s minority, but per-
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 171

haps also because he is of foreign descent. Above all, however, they hold
the PS responsible for the industrial wasteland that is Wallonia and for
which Flanders, in their view, foots the bills. They also accuse him of hav-
ing forced Flemings to accept the extension of suffrage in local elections to
non-EU citizens. The Flemish popular imagination portrays Di Rupo (rou-
tinely described in the Flemish media as Belgium’s most powerful man) as
the prototype of the lazy, arrogant “foreigner” who is not only supported by
thrifty, good-natured Flemings, but whose despotism and patronizing arro-
gance they must tolerate in the bargain: the ultimate colonizing “alien.”
And in the meantime, some Flemings have their own reasons for wor-
rying about the influx of Eastern European workers: they fear that in the
local elections of 2006, VB will increase its power base in Brussels with the
help of Polish immigrants whom they describe as conservative, Islamopho-
bic Catholics (De Standaard, March, 13, 2004). The German community in
Wallonia wants more autonomy from the Walloon region (De Standaard,
September 28, 2002) or even a separate German region (De Standaard, Feb-
ruary 19, 2001), and inhabitants of the Walloon province of Luxembourg
demand official recognition of their (German) dialect (De Standaard, April
16, 2002). Finally, some Moroccans in Brussels agree with VB that the coun-
try is full and cannot accommodate more “foreigners” and that it must be
“cleansed” (De Morgen, January 24, 2005).

The popular appeal of autochthony in Belgium does not reflect an increase
in cultural diversity. Historically, both ideological and linguistic differences
were regionally based, both between regions (Catholic Flanders versus anti-
clerical Wallonia) and within regions (anticlerical urban centers in Wallo-
nia and Flanders versus the Catholic countryside in Flanders and Wallo-
nia). However, unlike linguistic differences, ideological differences were
not seen as indicative of cultural diversity. The discourses of RàL, FDF, and
VB all draw upon older forms of localism, factionalism, and municipalism,
all of which allowed for the (re)classification of political allies or oppo-
nents as “locals” or “aliens,” regardless of their actual provenance. They
meshed with a pillarized system that was always inherently conflictual even
as it was consociational: compromises were needed to accommodate the
conflicting interests of the various subcultural segments. In addition, these
localist and autochthony discourses draw upon the rhetoric of the Flemish
and Walloon Movements, which both made cultural claims related to lan-
guage before making predominantly political (Flemish) and economic
(Walloon) demands (Hooghe 1991:15–16).
The federalization of the country has gradually transformed the lin-
guistic frontier into a national border, emphasizing differences between
regions and communities at the cost of differences within them. The eth-
172 African Studies Review

nolinguistic opposition between Flemings and Francophones has come to

supersede an ideological conflict between conservatives (Catholics) and
progressives (anticlericals). Territorially based federalization has thus eth-
nicized what were initially mainly ideological group differences (Hooghe
1993). However, autochthony does not equal ethnicization. The develop-
ment of an opposition in Voeren between Francophones and Flemings
among locals who share a Dutch dialect provides a startling example.
Initially, the Flemish Movement, which grew out of a sense of cultural
deprivation, espoused a Romantic idea of the particularity of Flemish cul-
ture while the Walloon Movement, born from a sense of cultural superior-
ity, identified with an Enlightenment ideal of a universal French culture.
The democratization of politics affected the two movements differently. In
the aftermath of the fixation of the linguistic border, at a time when the
country’s power balance shifted from the south to the north, Francophone
worries that “foreign” Flemings would come to dominate politics and med-
dle in “their own” affairs was driven by status panic (Buelens & Van Dyck
1998:61), while Flemings feared retaining the status of a politicoeconomic
minority despite constituting a numerical majority. As Wallonia’s political
and economic power declined, the Walloon Movement increasingly
referred to citizens’ individual right to chose their own language. The
inclusiveness of its rhetoric, predicated upon the superiority of French, cul-
tivated assimilationist policies toward newcomers. Secular Francophone
Socialists were initially opposed to the instruction of Islam in public
schools, considering it a divisive force in the assimilation process (Hossay
1996:353). To this day, there is little debate about multiculturalism in Fran-
cophone Belgium, because these assimilationist policies are, theoretically
(Nols’s are an obvious exception) wholly inclusive.
As Flanders’ political and economic power increased, the idea of the
equality of Flemish culture made way for an exclusive view of Flanders as
an ethnically homogenous society; this was countered by those who uphold
the right of allochthons to ethnic difference. It thus seems that Francoph-
ones stress socioeconomic deprivation and ignore ethnocultural differ-
ences, while Flemings emphasize the latter but neglect the former. How-
ever, as mentioned, Francophones do refer to ethnic citizenship, while
Flemings refer to civil citizenship. Since 1998, the Flemish administration
pursues a so-called inburgeringsbeleid (civil-ization policy) aimed at socializ-
ing individual newcomers in Flanders through courses in Dutch and social
orientation (Ceuppens & Geschiere 2005).
In addition to political differences, the tensions between Francopho-
nes in Brussels and Wallonia must be considered. Furthermore, depending
upon the context, both Flemings and Francophones will assert the right of
the individual or the collectivity/region. Many Flemings assert the rights of
Flemings as a group on behalf of the socially disadvantaged in relation to
Francophones and the right of the individual Flemish employers on behalf
of the socially dominant in relation to allochthons. Likewise, Francopho-
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 173

nes claim individual rights in Brussels and the facility communes where
they constitute a majority, and recognition as a cultural minority in Flan-
Flemings as a class remain assimilationist in their views on Flanders’
Francophones, but mainstream Flemish nationalists are divided between
left-wingers, who uphold allochthons’ right to emancipate themselves as a
group, and right-wingers, who insist that they must integrate individually.
The idea that VB’s main enemy is not the “artificial” Fleming Mustafa, but
the “artificial” Belgian state (Gijsels 1992:183), highlights both the
endurance of the image of Francophones as Flemings’ ultimate “Other”
and the logic that structures pre- and postradical right Flemish nationalist
views on Francophone and Muslim “aliens” alike (Blommaert & Ver-
schueren 1998; Swyngedouw 1998b). French, the Belgian state, and Islam
would all be equally incompatible with Flanders. However, increasingly,
Flemish autochthony seems to sway between a tendency to target those who
supposedly impose themselves culturally and politically as “colonizers” or
“occupiers” from above (Francophones) and those who undermine Flan-
ders economically as “spongers” from below (Francophones, labor immi-
grants, etc.).
Initially, the Flemish Movement was progressive insofar as it wanted to
change the existing order, and the Walloon Movement was conservative in
that it wanted to hold on to the status quo. By contrast, the Francophone
localist and Flemish autochthony discourses described here are all conser-
vative in that they are driven by a desire to retain one’s own privileged posi-
tion under changed socioeconomic and political circumstances. Neverthe-
less, while RàL and FDF have had a disproportionate influence on
national/federal politics in relation to their size, they have never managed
to make the transition from a local to a regional party in the way that VB
has. All Walloon regionalist parties have imploded, and regionalism is now
confined to the fringe of the PS. At one stage, anti-Muslim rhetoric caught
on across political oppositions in Brussels, but this soon fizzled out. One
could argue that this was partly so because the nineteen “villages” that
make up the region of Brussels have not been amalgamated, meaning that
inhabitants feel less detached from local politicians while racist rhetoric
remains fragmented and local. However, in Antwerp, the rise of VB was not
so much the effect of a badly implemented amalgamation (Swyngedouw
1998a:302) than of the arrogance of Antwerp’s political class which ignored
the electorate and refused to take the party seriously.
Personal charisma alone cannot explain why Happart and Nols
became at one time the most popular politicians in Francophone Belgium.
Clearly their stance against Flemings tapped into widespread anti-Flemish
sentiments. Yet neither they nor other politicians could channel this resent-
ment into a powerful political party. Nols’s failure to capitalize upon his
popularity when joining a radical right party suggests that opposition to the
radical right remains stronger in Francophone Belgium than in Flanders.
174 African Studies Review

The fact that collaboration with Nazism in Francophone Belgium was

largely associated with right-wing Catholics in regions where Catholicism
was never as strong as in Flanders is certainly a factor here. Unlike Fran-
cophone parties, VB has successfully developed an autochthony rhetoric,
connecting an exclusion of Francophones and non-Belgian “foreigners.”
Its welfare chauvinism does not exclude those who are culturally or ethni-
cially different, but it can justify their exclusion in terms of citizens’ and
noncitizens’ perceived cultural differences. VB’s autochthony claims
clearly have roots in extreme right and fascist Flemish nationalism. How-
ever, like most popular autochthony parties in Europe, it is no longer an
old-fashioned fascist party. It is “new” insofar as it is part of the new iden-
tity-based social movements that took off from the 1960s on (Edelman
2001; see also Comaroff 2005:130–31) by replacing an ideology of racial
supremacy with one of cultural determinism. Since changing its name, it
has officially discarded the fascist concept of national (Flemish) corporatist
solidarity for neoliberal populism (Erk 2005). It remains to be seen to what
extent this will alienate its working-class electorate. VB has also abandoned
its notorious zeventigpuntenprogramma (seventy-points program), which pro-
posed the expulsion of all “foreigners,” including those born on Belgian
soil. Its suggestion that individual Muslims can stay as long as they assimi-
late has been undermined, however, by constant references to the incom-
patibility between Islam and democracy. VB now presents itself as a main-
stream right-wing party. Its genius lies precisely in its ability to appeal both
to traditional republican Flemish nationalists and to Flemings who previ-
ously voted for mainstream parties, many of whom want Belgium to con-
tinue as a federalized, constitutional monarchy.
While VB has some charismatic leaders, it owes its success not in the
least to its capacity to sell itself as a brand: VB, Inc. (see Comaroff
2005:131). Habermas has argued that liberal rights (individual freedoms)
and social rights (distribution of wealth) can both facilitate a privatist
retreat from citizenship and a particular “clientelization” of the citizen’s
role (1996:31). Here again, a comparison with sub-Saharan postcolonial
states is instructive. In Europe, as in sub-Saharan Africa, in the face of
changing conditions, autochthony relies upon an identity that transcends
history by playing on the simultaneity of primordial connectedness, natural
right, and corporate interest (Comaroff 2005:131; Comaroff & Comaroff
2003:455). For Francophone citizens living in impoverished regions whose
previous wealth was built on the heavy industries associated with modernist
nation-states, direct, individual contacts with political leaders through
clientelism remains the most important access to economic resources.
Flemish citizens who live in one of Europe’s most prosperous regions, dom-
inated by postnational service industries, view themselves as shareholders
in the polity-as-corporation (Comaroff 2005:131).
Like fascism in its old and new guises, autochthony is concerned with
the distribution of wealth in order to strengthen the power of “one’s own
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 175

people,” however that is defined. The Old Right’s ideology of racial purity
was connected to modernist prewelfare states. The New Right’s discourse
of cultural incompatibility, by contrast, cannot be detached from the devel-
opment of the welfare state in the face of new global migration flows. Draw-
ing upon cultural boundaries that are constantly negotiated, rather than
on fixed racial boundaries, allows it to respond quickly to the effects of var-
ious migratory movements that affect postnational states.
Yasemin Nuhoğlu Soysal reminds us that the incorporation of labor
immigrants in the polity reverses the classical Marshallian sequence: their
social rights precede political rights (1994:131). The tendency to associate
social rights with passive citizenship, as opposed to political rights and their
association with active citizenship (Kastoryano 2002: 123), contributes to
the erroneous view that labor immigrants and their offspring sponge off
the welfare state. The classical welfare state is universal only within national
boundaries: expected to operate with the assumption of closure, it
excludes noncitizens (Soysal 1994:138–39). Relegating immigrants to
denizenship status remains within the confines of the nation-state model:
it depicts changes in citizenship as an expansion of scope on a territorial
basis and fails to recognize the changes in the nature of postnational states
(Soysal 1994:139). Granting immigrants denizenship, as opposed to citi-
zenship, status justifies autochthony claims; it construes social rights as con-
ditional upon political rights while reducing the state to its welfare bureau-
cracy through an identification of citizenship with social rights. The fact
that access to social housing is now connected to knowledge of Dutch
amply illustrates the extent to which the Flemish administration reduces
“civil-ization” to social rights.
Once again, it is useful to compare Flanders with sub-Saharan post-
colonies. VB made its electoral inroads in 1991, two years after the fall of
the Berlin Wall (see Bouveroux 1996). Since then, neoliberalism has not
merely transformed the moral and material sovereignty of nation-states
everywhere but has also compounded their social heterogeneity: the
transnational mass mediation of signs and styles, information and ideolo-
gies, therapies and theologies; the rise of an electric commons; the grow-
ing hegemony of the market and with it, the notion that personhood is
constructed through consumption, that culture and history are intellectual
property to be possessed, patented, and exchanged for profit. In this world,
goes the truism, freedom represents itself as a choice: most of all, as a
choice not merely of identities but of modes of producing them. In light of
this, it is one of the great existential ironies of our age that identity appears
to have become, simultaneously, a function of voluntary self-production
and a matter of ineluctable essence, even genetic inscription (Comaroff
Bearing this in mind, we can deduce why, for the time being,
autochthony has caught on more in Flanders than in Francophone Bel-
gium. Flemings can afford to buy into the language of choice; by redefin-
176 African Studies Review

ing the category of “one’s own people” and by rejecting automatic, federal
solidarity, they restrict access to the benefits of the general welfare state to
“their own.” This choice is real insofar as it is more open to the affluent
than it is to the destitute. Indeed, welfare chauvinism is propelled by pros-
perity rather than poverty, attracting not primarily those who have lost the
most or have least to lose, but rather those who stand to lose the most. This
goes some way to explain why in Belgium, as in Italy and Germany, inhabi-
tants of the most affluent regions seem more susceptible to claims of
autochthony against co-citizens than those of the poorest regions. The
poorer inhabitants of Western European welfare states, including Wal-
loons, lack the freedom that would allow them to choose to reinvent them-
selves and to deny others the benefits of the welfare state upon which they
themselves rely heavily. Finally, inequality of choice could help explain why
Flemish and Walloon regionalists have not set up alliances against the Bel-
gian state. As such, the breakup of the Belgian state, if it ever materializes,
may only result from a Flemish choice.


I am grateful to Peter Geschiere, Chantal Kesteloot, and Michael Meeuwis

for comments on earlier drafts of this text.

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1. John Knight (1994) takes Cohen to task for closing off localities from the wider
nation; but see Cohen (2000).
2. The radical right is a clearly demarcated political ideology while autochthony,
like populism, refers to an analytical description of a political phenomenon
that challenges conventional left-right oppositions (cf. Cuperus 2005; Hermet
3. A quick Internet search establishes five hits for colonisation flamande and twenty
for impérialisme flamand, seventy-one for franskiljons (gallicized Flemings) en
imperialisme and no fewer than 208 for franstalig (Francophone) imperialisme.
4. Both regions gained their name after independence.
5. Pillars are not a legal category, but political parties are connected to various
civic associations and auxiliary organizations, from schools to publishing
houses, from health insurance companies to banks. Thus traditionally, devout
184 African Studies Review

Catholics attended Catholic schools, read Catholic newspapers and books,

took out health insurance with Catholic health insurance companies, banked
with Catholic banks, etc.
6. Until recently, some 90 percent of all Belgians were baptized in the Catholic
faith; one must therefore distinguish between Catholicism as a religious and as
an ideological affiliation.
7. It would lead me too far to describe the differences between and shifts from
Catholic to Christian-Democratic and from Socialist to Social-Democratic par-
ties; the terms are used here as synonyms.
8. A commune is the smallest local political division of various European coun-
tries, governed by a mayor and municipal council.
9. One recurrent argument in analyses of the rise of VB is the suggestion that
Flanders, unlike Wallonia has no history of labor immigrants. However, this
interpretation assumes that immigrants have a different ethnicity and over-
looks the extent to which Flemings easily attribute “alien” status to anyone
coming from outside the local community. During the nineteenth century,
thousands of Flemings migrated to industrialized centers in Wallonia and
within Flanders. For instance, between 1836 and 1933, Borgerhout, the
Antwerpian borough where VB first made electoral inroads, increased its pop-
ulation from four thousand to fifty-six thousand, as Flemish countryside
dwellers moved in to start working in Antwerp’s harbor (Rhottier 2000:57-63).
While in the first part of the twentieth century these Flemish newcomers were
stereotyped as much as Chinese, Indian, and female harbor workers, they were
never discussed in terms of a vreemdelingenprobleem (foreign question) (Saerens
2000: 94–96).
10. Flemish municipalism partly draws upon a nineteenth-century idealized view
of the region’s medieval urban past. From the start, the Belgian state has
encouraged municipalism throughout the country and in its colony (Young
1965), experimenting with democratic participation at the municipal level
before extending this to further levels.
11. The Walloon Movement was not opposed to Flemings as such but to Flamin-
ganten (Flamingants) who demanded Flemish language rights; by the same
token, the Flemish Movement was not hostile to Francophones but to Fran-
skiljons, Gallicized Flemings.
12. Despite the fact that the official language of the Flemish community and
region (see below) is Dutch, many Francophones write that Flemings speak fla-
mand (Flemish) and not néerlandais (Dutch), as if to marginalize it as a lan-
guage or imply that it is little more than a collection of dialects.
13. Some 30 to 40 percent of Walloons are bilingual in Walloon and French, but
demands for the official recognition of local dialects are very recent and
remain marginal.
In a bilingual country, chosing whether to use a Dutch or French term is
not always straightforward. With the exception of the names of major cities like
Brussels and Antwerp, I have chosen to follow official language use: Voeren,
instead of Fourons. In the case of communes that are officially bilingual, I have
preferred the French term, e.g., Schaerbeek, not Schaarbeek. In the case of
bilingual journals or a book or article that has been published simultaneously
in both languages, I have given preference to French title(s).
14. The local dialect is the lingua franca acceptable to both communities and con-
Allochthons, Colonizers, and Scroungers 185

tinues marking the villagers’ common allegiance to their shared locality (Van-
dermeeren & Wynants 1993:228), but it does not symbolize political neutrality:
Francophones dispute that it is Dutch (Van Laar 1994:62).
15. In the aftermath of the Second Gulf War and other international events, the
identification of Islam with terrorism once again made itself first felt in Brus-
sels, where a number of Francophone, Socialist, and Liberal burgomasters
declared 75 percent of Islam teachers “dangerous fundamentalists” (Boender
& Kanmaz 2002).
16. “Eurocrats” refers to individuals working for the European Unions’ institu-
17. In 1995, when the Flemish Socialist party was dogged by scandals, it managed
to regain 3 percent of previously lost votes by building its electoral campaign
around President Louis Tobback, who was presented to the electorate as “uw
sociale zekerheid” (your social security).
18. However, their focus on maintaining the standard of living of those in full-time
employment rather than on securing jobs for all means that in practice, they
do not represent the great majority of Muslim labor immigrants and their
descendants who are now unemployed (Okkerse & Termote 2004).
19. It is not clear how Kitschelt squares the “minimal welfare system” of the United
States with the recurrence of cultural nativism against “foreigners”(Perea
20. The first member of a mainstream Flemish party to make the point was the
Socialist Robert Voorhamme, who has strong ties to the Socialist trade union
movement (De Standaard, September 26–27, 2002). Recently, Bart Somers, the
leader of the Flemish Liberal party and a former member of VU, reiterated
that view (De Standaard June, 19, 2005).
21. In the wake of VB’s condemnation of racism, Matthias Storme, one of Flan-
ders’ leading conservative Flemish nationalist intellectuals, described discrimi-
nating against others as an elemental human right.
22. It now openly tries to win Francophone voters in Brussels by saying that they
would be better off in a prosperous Flanders than tied to an impoverished Wal-
lonia. While little love is lost between Francophones in Brussels and Wallonia,
it remains to be seen whether the former are willing to put their vote where
their mouth is.
23. The Flemish student song “Franse ratten rolt uw matten” was written in 1814
in protest against the French occupation and later adapted to target Fran-
skiljons. Seven hundred years after the Battle of the Golden Spurs on July 11,
1302, in which the infantry of the Count of Flanders defeated the French cav-
alry, many Flemish nationalists consider France, not Belgium, the major
24. In reality, most Francophones in Flanders outside the facility communes make
cultural rather than political claims. They are ostracized, on the one hand, by
those who take umbrage at their public French language use, and on the other
by many on the left who do not want to extend their vision of a multicultural
society to what they consider a social elite. Like Muslims, they are required to
relegate the expression of their cultural identity to the privacy of their own
homes; most do so, so as not to court controversy (Laureys 2005).
25. Most estimates speculate that in addition to twenty thousand French citizens,
there are one hundred and twenty thousand Belgian Francophones in the
186 African Studies Review

Brussels hinterland and one hundred and sixty thousand in the rest of Flan-
ders (Laureys 2005).
26. Dutchophone, Francophone, and bilingual inhabitants of the region insist that
the major problems that concern them are the environment, education, jus-
tice, and social inequality; they say that they get on well together but that peo-
ple from outside come in to stir up language conflicts (Janssens 2002:283).
27. Wallonia only formed part of the French Republic between 1815 and 1830;
previously Liege was an independent prince bishopric while the rest of the
region belonged to the Austrian/Spanish Netherlands, together with Flanders.