Flemish Flags, Polls and Politicians

Gent Wevelgem

No finishing straight in a Belgian race at this time of year is complete without a big yellow flag with a black lion. But whilst the “Lion of Flanders” is part of cycling lore, it’s also loaded with politics and nationalism and these flags can be an attempt to hijack the race, using sport to play politics.

An opinion poll over the weekend suggested that one third of Belgians believe their country will break-up. Sure these polls can be gamed but it’s true that Belgium is a divided country at times and there is a strong political movement in Flanders for the region to become autonomous, if not independent. Leading separatist politician Bart De Wever has said he wants this in time for late 2014. Of course he would say this but the time frame indicates he is not marching to a distant horizon but looking instead to Belgium’s next set of elections.

Geopolitical primer
By surface area Belgium ranks as the world’s 140th largest country, about the same size as Lesotho. If it was a state in the USA, Belgium would be amongst the ten smallest, about about the size of Maryland. The country as we know it today emerged in 1830 with the Belgian revolution.
Today Belgium has three regions: Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels capital. Flanders (in yellow) is where they primarily speak Flemish, a dialect that’s very similar to Dutch whilst Wallonia (red) is where they mainly speak French. The country is a composite nation.

Those Flags

Flags of Belgium

Flags are used to represent nations, statehood, ideology and other political concepts and the Lion of Flanders is no exception. Belgium’s flag is the black, yellow and red stripes. The regional flag of Vlaanderen, Flanders, is the black lion on a yellow background but, crucially with red claws. The separatist politicians and their supporters wave a similar flag only with black claws. The flag of Wallonia is a cockerel. You’ll see all these flags at races but remember one is the national banner, two represent regions and the fourth is a disputed political symbol.

Here’s Philippe Gilbert with some world champion baiting in Belgian magazine Humo decrying those who wave the Flemish flag:

“Extremists, they’re everywhere, even in Wallonia. It’s like the National Front in France. People don’t believe in politics any more and give their votes to these parties. It’s negative voting, the electorate don’t know what policies they’re voting for.”

It was a select quote but a few politicians jumped on it. Gilbert had to clarify his words saying when he’s racing in the World Championships he wants to see the Belgian flag in support.

Gilbert talks politics

Boonen vs Gilbert?
There are elections in 2014 and these will help set the country’s course. We’re still no nearer to seeing Tom Boonen, a Fleming, and Philippe Gilbert, a Walloon riding for separate nations because the separatist politicians in Flanders want a settlement with increased autonomy but probably still under the Belgian flag. This is partly because of pragmatism, it is easier to achieve, both in terms of recovering powers on a practical basis but also because the country can’t be split in half Korean-style because capital city Brussels is largely French speaking but sit in Flanders.

Despite talk of national division, several things unite the Belgium people. The royal family is one thing and cycling is another. Of course bike racing is not for everyone, just like monarchy, but Belgium is the country where polls show the greatest popular support for cycle sport.

It’s that time of year when the yellow flag is everywhere and this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders is a national event, Belgium’s Superbowl. But it takes only a handful of people, some bamboo poles and a few flags to ambush the finish line of a Belgian race. You might think it’s part of the scenery and sometimes people can be out supporting their local riders with these flags. But it can be a political hijack too. When this happens it’s got little to do with sport.


68 thoughts on “Flemish Flags, Polls and Politicians”

  1. It’s a shame that the political ideology is so entwined with the flag and its prevalence at races. It’s a fantastically strong symbol and for me I immediately think of riders covered in grey dust / mud, grim faces, pavĂ©, hard men, frites and beer.. Not the struggle for Flandrian independence. Although lionising Flahute riders is used to enforce their ambitions for independence too I suppose.. I’m sat in a yellow lion T-Shirt right now!

    • That’s the thing, it’s become appropriated by cyclists and politicians alike. Especially foreign fans who see the flags and associate it with the sport, only without know what it really means. If it’s bought innocently, it’s fine. Just be careful if you wear it in Belgium as you be asked for an explanation.

      • Fortunately T-Shirts and Belgian Classics don’t really mix!

        Race fans always seem to fall along national lines as opposed to the commercial teams, which is quite unique to cycling but I suppose that’s its history and how the teams used to be designated.. You wouldn’t see a Sky or a Garmin flag. Not the same as holding up a Real Madrid flag I suppose, helped by being a name, not a SatNav.

  2. The white and green “Padania” flags of the Lega Nord which often dominate and disfigure the finish of Lombardia would be another example. I suspect many people watching outside Italy don’t realize what they’re seeing.

    • True although the Padania politicians don’t seem to be as advanced in their cause, the chances of them achieving their aims look slim if not impossible compared to the poll data in Belgium. But again they use an ancient regional symbol for their aims… including waving them in bike races.

    • Just a Basque flag on its own doesn’t necessarily have a wider political point, any more than a Scottish or Welsh flag (which seem to be present at many sporting events) does. It could just be an expression of national pride.

  3. I don’t understand Belgian national identity. I’m part dutch, and have worked closely with some Belgians for a few years, watched Belgian news, etc.

    It seems to me many Flemish Belgians struggle somewhat with their identity. On the one hand, they feel proud to be Belgian (as they should). On the other hand, they often are at least a little resentful at the insouciance shown toward Flemish culture by the (historically) dominant Walloons. E.g., most Dutch-speaking Flemish seem to speak French to at least a basic conversational level (as did many Dutch, up to at least my father’s generation). However often those who are meant to represent the entire state speak dutch to only a very limited degree, if at all. This kind of thing seems to grate at least a few Flemish. Then there are economic concerns, which I’m not very familiar with. Finally, I gather there is annoyance at the franco/anglo-phonic population of Brussels spreading out and not integrating linguistically (never mind culturally) with the Flemish areas they move into.

    There seems to be a significant tension there, cultural and perhaps economic. I have long failed to understand why the Flemish persist in sticking with a union with another quite different cultural group, when the reasons for that union have *long* ceased to have any relevance. I don’t think it is fair to tar this question with extremist politics, because I have heard at least a degree of these tensions expressed by even moderate Flemish Belgians.

    I’d love to hear more from Belgians explaining more about the relationships the Flemish have with Belgian identity.

    • Interesting because you can see it from the economics with Wallonia having a “rust belt” aspect where it became wealthy thanks to coal and steel as well as its canals and rivers to transport these goods but today a lot of the factories are closed. Unemployment in Wallonia is double that of Flanders (source)

  4. In a trip to Bruges, I learned that the Flandrians hate the French. I don’t understand that. Why hate the French when the Germans have invaded them twice in the last hundred years?

    • Napoleon had invaded Flanders, I think. But surely that happened longer ago than the 2 german invasions, that’s true.
      Another fact, is that Flanders used to be the less rich part of the country till the steel and mining industry in Liege collapsed in the 70’s. Now, being the richest part, they’re complaining about the “lazy” Walloons. Something like the richer parts of Catalonia or Basque country are doing about the rest of Spain, or Lombardy and Veneto are doing for south Italy.

    • Interesting. I found during a week spent in Flemish Belgium last year that they hate nearly no one. By and I large I discovered them to be fun-loving and exceedingly friendly. I specifically asked many of them about cultural tensions and none bore any resentment to the French, and were slightly bemused by their “too serious” Dutch neighbors to the north. But hate? Not by a long shot.

    • They dont hate the French as such, but tmostly the French speaking Belgians. In the past, as Balkou writes, the Walloons dominated economically and socially, and the aristocracy, even in Flanders, spoke French. Flemish was a peasants’ language. Flemish nationalism was a linguistic emancipation movement first, not unlike Welsh nationalism.

      Flemish nationalism or even separatism isnt really a minority or extremist position, comparable with Scotland. What complicates it is that in the more recent past some fascist and xenophobic groups have hijacked Flemish nationalism and added a general anti-foreigner element to it.

      This makes the flag such a complicated symbol – it means different things to different people: symbol of Flemish language right, of a Flemish cultural identity, of an aim for an independent Flanders, of xenophobia and racism, of economically dominant Flanders lacking solidarity with Wallonia, etc etc

    • That may be because part of the Flemish movement decided to collaborate with the Nazis in WW2, in hopes of overturning the Francophone dominance. Of course since the war was lost, this is not a point they like being reminded of, although De Wever’s current success is definitely more due to economic concerns of the Flemish middle class than any lingering extremist sympathies.

      • The radical rightwing part Vlaams Belang had never a problem until today to collaborate with other european fascist and nazis.
        And they have best connections to german neonazis.

  5. Great article, thanks (and great shot of Gilbert too). In William Fotheringham’s book “Merckx: Half Man Half Bike” he floats the interesting idea that Merckx was able to be a national hero who transcended these divisions partly because of his trans-Belgian background – born in a Flemish-speaking village, with a Flemish name, but grew up in the French-speaking enclave of Brussels.

    • A good example with Merckx there although he himself said at times he felt outside of the club of Flemish riders although this was in part because he grew up wanting to win the Tour de France whilst his Flemish peers dreamed of the cobbled classics.

  6. So Rapha’s just come out with a T-shirt sporting the lion of Flanders.. If you are wondering if they had a clue about the tradition they were trying to profit from, check their web-site… and check the claws…

    • Oops. It can be argued cycling fans can claim back this flag but good luck to people trying this with a t-shirt when they walk into a crowded bar in Flanders. They might suddenly find new friends with some… but that’s because it’s use remains quite political.

      • There’s a clash of (cycling) cultures waiting to happen here; on the one hand you have the largely working class Belgian, French, Spanish and Italian cycling fans and on the other, they oft-more moneyed English speaking counterparts from the US or the UK.
        Its odd because doing a group ride in the U.S. you more often than not ride with doctors, lawyers, execs, folks with doctorates while in France you get farmers, park rangers, plumbers, regular people….
        So there’s also an element of social class at work. In this instance (as in many others as it turns out) its the most pretentious folks (the upper “rapha buying” classes) who are the most ignorant about the sport they purport to “have a passion for” and “know all about.”
        Its not just about selling (bravo Rapha! 😉 ), buying, or wearing out of sheer ignorance a t-shirt that’s well nigh a ultra-right wing symbol while pretending to know about the sport — its also about you, your social class, and how deep the roots of cycling really are in your country.
        Cycling: to often in the US it is taken as just another extreme sport for bored aging yuppies or “never grow up tattooed-trust-fund barristas”; in short a way to assert an identity they sorely lack.
        With mortifying regularity we are reminded this is a sport they know little about.

  7. I’m Flemish/Belgian actually, and during the tour of Flandres I wave my flag as I consider this as the big day of my region, does this mean that I want the country to break up or that I hate Gilbert or other non-Flemish riders, ofcourse not 😉 but its the one day to present my region to the outside world. That’s it. Like a Catalon waves his flag when Barca plays in the Champ League. Anyway, may the best win on Sunday

  8. Whatever is on the flag, I hate it when it’s dangled over the road to get on TV and gets in the way of my (and many others) view of the race as in Ethan’s photo above – and even sometimes in the way of the riders. It’s not why most people go to watch a race thankfully.

  9. Another aspect of this that might come in to play is the current state of affairs in the United Kingdom.

    The Tour of Britain this year has a Grand Depart in Scotland, a country that is holding a referendum on independence from the rest of the UK next year. With the current political capital to be gained expect to see a fair bit of grandstanding from both pro- and anti-independence Scots during the stages up there later this year.

  10. Am married to a Flemish Belgian and have lived in Flanders for almost 7 years.
    I have also been ‘plagued’ by the relationship between Flemish and Walloon and
    what it means to be Belgian. I have only been to the French-speaking part a few times
    and found that they mostly refuse to speak Flemish, even if you say you did not learn French, like me.
    It usually ends up with the Flemish person having to speak French, even if the conversation is happening in Flanders!
    The issue, of course, has a history! When Wallonia was an industrial powerhouse Flanders was primarily farming country and went through difficult economic times but apparently received little help from wealthy Wallonia. Tables have turned in that Wallonia is now in a long-term slump, and is receiving billions in aid from what is now a transformed Flanders (since the 1960’s). The general impression I get in Flanders is that the Walloons just want to suck up more and more of Flemish money to the point where the Flemish cows’ udders are sucked dry!
    It does feel for me like I am living in two countries! I see very little contact between the two sides, very little shared identity, although both do share the character trait of being generally nonchalant/ambivalent, and thus not too passionate about rocking any boats…unless verbally. For example, they recently had more than a year with no new government, and while on the internet and in cafes everyone had so much to say about the situation there was no action, no protest march, nada, just a lot of talk! They are very good at it!
    But as you well know, they are also generally very good at racing, ‘hard koers’, and that is all I see at the races! The flags are just decoration, to spice up an otherwise boring scenery (for someone from South Africa)!!!

    • Your comment about the language is what I was going to add. My sister in law in Flemish and I remember going to a bike ride in the Ardennes and her father complaining (when he didn’t know the French word for something) that they always have to speak French and not the other way around.

  11. Surprisingly, in the footage of the finish of G-W this year I saw, as well as the Flemish flag, a number of Belgian flags with the royal crest in the centre which is not something I’ve noticed before at races (and I lived in Belgium a few years ago).

    • I read in Sportwereld that all those belgium flags was there because og 3 groups Pro Belgica, B Plus og teh Belgium Alliance.

      They support a joint Belgium with so they brought 20 Belgium flags to the finish of the GW last sunday.

  12. Who would have thought that Gilbert is so politically aware… His diagnosis is 100% correct. Negative voting. Choosing lesser evil.

  13. A further twist is that Flanders extends into the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France (where it’s called Flandres). The villages have Flemish-sounding names like Volkerinckhove and Zegerscappel, and the architecture is distinctly Flemish, but the street names are all French. It’s been part of France since the Thirty Years War and The Treaty of the Pyrenees in1659 . Although there are organisations to promote Flemish culture and language in the area, as far as I know there isn’t any political movement to unite it with Belgium.

  14. Nice. Perhaps you could add that the politicians are using a symbol (the “lion of Frandres”) from a time when nationalism of any kind would not make any sense whatsoever (we are talking feudalism here).

  15. Thanks for the history and background, a great article. I’ve wondered previously about the two different identities and areas of the country and the interactions between them, or lack of them. I was going to ask how the riders are supported i.e. how is well is Tom Boonen supported by the Walloons and Philippe Gilbert by the Flemish, or does their background not come into it and its a rider specific thing? Bob above kind of alluded to it. Also on the map is the blue/red shaded area to the east significant?

  16. That’s the German-speaking area.
    I am a Vlaming (from the yellow part on the map) and I personally don’t care where they come from. But I’m sure that you’ll find different opinions among fans.

  17. Ive been over to do the Ronde Sportive 3 times. On the first time in a bar in Geraardsbergen I thought Id be clever In front of my mates and order a round of beers in what I thought was the local lingo – French. I got looks of daggers from the locals and bar staff and they said ‘just speak English’! I had alot to learn obviously.

  18. After reading the comments i feel the point is lost as an Australian I wear the Lion on one of my jerseys because I love cycling, the classics and love the pride the Flemish have for cycling.
    Just a point we Australians are also condemned by the Union Jack

  19. I don’t see why Gilbert should apologise for his words….so often in sport we are used to hearing sportsmen having no opinion or mouthing the same bland cliches, “the lads gave it 110%” (?!), blah blah blah…..it’s almost like some people expect to see sportsmen as role models and only complain when they have ‘normal’ failings (Boonen, Ulrich, etc) but actually don’t want to hear them voice an opinion – Evans, Gilbert or like Wiggins’ comment re celebrity worship in the UK and becoming “famous” for nothing as oppossed to talent (in whatever field). Why can’t we have opinions and respect what someone else has to say, even if we might not always agree with it, instead of the bland one-line media speak. I doubt we’d see people with the courage of their convictions like this these days….http://docgeeks.com/2012/08/22/salute-documentary-subject-to-receive-posthumous-apology-from-australian-government/

  20. So what’s the story then with the Lions on the blue and white-striped flag? You always see them waved during Liege-Bastagne-Liege. Is it a Luxembourg thing?

    Also what’s the story with lions? I’ve never heard of lions roaming the savannah of Kortrijk.

    • Yes, it’s the Luxembourg flag and presumably travelling support for the Schlecks.

      As for the lions, Robrecht van BĂ©thune, aka Robert de BĂ©thune, was a knight in medieval times who went on a religious crusade. It was common for the victorious to adopt the lion on their coat of arms, an exotic testament to travels in Africa and Asia. This knight was the original Lion of Flanders and ruled the area for a brief moment in medieval times under the French crown.

  21. Coming from blueblood background (De Jean) I can offer a little more on the lion symbol.

    The symbol was used by the French bluebloods, who originally come from the Middle East (Egypt) where the lion was revered as a powerful and noble animal in battle, thus used as the symbol for a warrior/knight who carried himself with valor and dignity on the battlefield. It is also important to point out that this lion symbol has to be ‘rampant’, standing up in a typical warrior-code stance that refers to standing in defense of others, therefore not as aggressor (very important that a true warrior is defender not assailant), not afraid to die in defense of others/ideals/values (sadly absent in modern comfort/ego-driven society).

    It is said that the symbol was first ascribed by the local Egyptians to Horus after he killed his uncle Seth in a ferocious battle, after Seth had had a student of his mother Isis poisoned (causing dehydration) and left in the desert to die a slow death, after Seth had learnt that the healing arts student had once been a soldier in Seth’s armed forces and since ‘converting’ to healing arts had hidden his past from Seth and thus no longer saluted him. Horus had been trained in the warrior arts but had never been in the army (no battle experience) and his courage in taking on Seth and his defense of the values of the healing arts had moved the people to revere him with the lion rampant symbol.

    It is often that when a symbols true meaning has been lost/forgotten the symbol becomes corrupted!

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