|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||09/11/95, Volume 1, Number 08|
THE referendum in Quebec has been followed with particular attention in the Belgian media and political circles.
In a country with a never-ending history of communal strife, all foreign experiments with devolution, autonomy or break-up are observed with a magnifying glass.
Whereas Gaullist France, so ticklish when it comes to her own Corsica or Basque autonomists, barely hid its support for Quebec sovereignty, Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene was cautiously non-committal.
The Canadian debate rings a bell indeed in Belgium where, despite the recent federalisation of the country and the overwhelming support for unity, a divorce cannot be dismissed as a totally surrealistic scenario.
If both Flemish and French-speaking communities were aware of the stakes of the referendum, the coverage of the event was more intense and dramatic in francophone media.
The Québécois, the last Mohicans of francité in North America, traditionally inspire sympathy and emotions between Brussels and Liège. For the last 25 years, very strong links have been developed between Belgium's French-speaking community and “La Belle Province” in all cultural areas, from radio programmes to educational exchange. Poetically represented by their folk singers and their story-tellers, Québécois are Belgian francophones' beloved cousins d'Amérique.
Even though very few Belgian French-speaking politicians made the trip to Quebec, the Quebec issue was a compulsory assignment for most francophone media. While most Dutch-speaking newspapers used wire stories or their correspondents in Washington, most French-speaking dailies, from Le Soir to Vers L'Avenir, sent special reporters and gave the event front-page coverage.
The perception of the Quebec question has, however, evolved in the last decade.
The shift could not have been more apparent in Le Soir. While in the 1980 referendum, its special envoy could not hide his grief when René Lévesque and his Party Québécois lost heavily to the federalists, this time the coverage showed more restraint and slalomed between sympathy for the francophones and doubts about the consequences of separatism.
Fifteen years ago, most Belgian francophones would have celebrated - without much afterthought - the independence of Quebec. They considered the Québécois as cultural buddies and political allies in what was interpreted as a fight for a French culture under threat, not only from the Americanisation of the world but also from either country's linguistic majority. Most francophones saw Quebec as a gigantic Brussels, a mostly French-speaking enclave wedged in a hostile land and challenged within its own urban borders by a growing migrant community.
There was however some ambiguity in this francophone identification with Quebec struggles. In the late Seventies, at the peak of the francophone Quebecomania, the business magazine Trends/Tendances published a cover story stating that “Québécois are the Flemings of Canada”. In their fight for recognition of their language and their national peculiarity, in their reaction against the Anglicisation of Montreal, were not Québécois closer to Flanders than to the Belgian French-speaking community? “The language used by separatist Lucien Bouchard (head of the federal opposition party Bloc Québécois),” wrote the Dutch-speaking and left-leaning paper De Morgen last week, “will sound as soft music to many Flemish nationalists' ears. We are the suckers of federal Canadian politics,” he said. “We cannot develop according to our own possibilities. A sovereign Quebec will make us proud of our language and culture.”
Times, however, are changing. Identity politics in the early Seventies definitely had a nicer tinge than in the grim Nineties: it suggested lofty goals of self-determination, people's empowerment, decentralisation, cultural creativity.
Therefore, even if they see Québécois as the underdogs, some Belgian francophones have second thoughts and wonder whether separation would not make Quebec a more tolerant society. Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau's slip of the tongue on the “ethnic vote” raised eyebrows even in Belgian francophone circles, where the raw side of ethno-nationalism is usually associated with the extremist wing of Flemish nationalism, the Vlaams Blok.
Unlike the 60&percent; of Quebecois 'pure laine' who voted Yes, most Belgian francophones do not seem to be longing for independence. The French-speaking community is too vulnerable economically to follow in the footsteps of its Quebec cousins.
On 2 November, when most French-speaking dailies still devoted front page space to Quebec, the Flemish leading quality paper De Standaard chose to highlight an official report on comparative social security contributions and expenses for the private sector in Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia.
Although the findings will be subject to widely diverging interpretations - Flanders pays 65&percent; of total contributions and receives from 36 to 58&percent; of disbursements - they could dampen the ardour of the most radical francophone separatists.
In an article announcing new negotiations on region and community financing Het Volk drew “the lessons” of the Quebec referendum. “Autonomy can only exists through good neighbourly co-operation based on mutual equality and respect,” it wrote.
|Subject Categories||Politics and International Relations|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium, Canada, France|