Obituary for the Belgian Franc

by Andrew Schloss

In the summer 2004 issue of the ANS Magazine (vol. 3, no. 2, pp.40-43) we looked at the modern numismatic history of Belgium within the context of a major crisis that nearly deposed the royal family in the smoldering aftermath of the Second World War. Reacting with disgust to the collaborationist policies of King Leopold III, the Belgians dropped virtually all references to the monarchy from their coinage and replaced the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas with a series of classically inspired designs. As the monarchy regained the trust of the Belgian people, so too was the monarch slowly reinstated on their coins. In this part, we will look at another crucial political development of the post-War era; the fallout resulting from an invisible line that splits the country into two equal spheres of influence.

Belgium is composed of two historical regions — Flanders in the north and Wallonia in the south. Straddling the border between the Romance and Germanic language families, Belgium is a multi-lingual state akin to Canada and Switzerland. Since medieval times the people of the southern areas of Belgium have spoken Romance dialects of French while residents northern areas have spoken variants of Low German. Today about sixty percent of the population speaks Dutch and forty percent speak French, with virtually all of the speakers living in his or her own language region. There is also a small German speaking region ceded to Belgium after World War I, and German speakers comprise less than 1 percent of Belgium’s population. Although this split in language has been present since prior to the creation of a sovereign Belgian state, it is only in the twentieth century when these linguistic differences have been politicized and has led to the devolution of the unitary state along linguistic lines.

Growing Tensions

During the first half century of Belgian independence French speakers dominated political, cultural, and economic power. French was the language of the government, courts, military, and education.

The first coins of modern Belgium were struck in French only, indicative of the political, economic, and social hegemony French speakers had over the new nation. 10 centimes – Proof 1832 (ANS 1940.196.114).

The dominant economic region of the time, the Sambre-Meuse Valley, is situated in the French speaking part of the country. Flemish political movements made significant headway during the nineteenth century toward language parity, but this was more out of a desire to have the right to speak one’s own language in public institutions rather than out of any sense of cultural or territorial unity. By the time the Germans invaded Belgium in 1914, Flanders and Wallonia were both almost entirely uni-lingual and this fact was confirmed by the 1932 Territoriality Principle calling for complete territorial uni-linguism except for matters of national importance, which would be bi-lingual. By associating physical territory with language for the first time, the 1932 language law had the important consequence of allowing politicians to use linguistic concerns as a means to assert and enforce territorial control for political, economic, and cultural ends.

For much of its history, Belgium has struck two versions of every coin, identical in all respects except for language. 5 Francs 1965 French legend (ANS 1965.219.4).

5 Francs, 1965 Dutch legend (ANS 1970.156.433).

It was not until after WWII that conflict over language differences began to accelerate rapidly. The German occupiers had been keenly aware of Belgium’s language differences, exploiting the situation by freeing Flemish prisoners of war while keeping their Walloon counterparts in captivity. The Flemish movement, which had leaned heavily on fascist ideology and Nazi collaboration, emerged from the war humiliated and vilified by the francophones. Meanwhile, the first Walloon Congress in 1945 rejected the continuation of the unitary Belgian state and unanimously demanded an autonomous Wallonia. A majority of the delegates even considered annexation by France to be the preferable outcome. Polarization between the Flemings and Walloons continued in the 1950s through the crisis in the monarchy and a heated debate in the government concerning education in public schools.

An essential component in the growing separation between Flanders and Wallonia was a dramatic shift in Belgium’s economic center-of-gravity. The industrial areas of the of the Sambre-Meuse Valley suffered from a decaying infrastructure, rapid depletion of key natural resources, and a growing inability to attract substantial new investment because of the high cost of labor. Flanders, with its excellent and unharmed port at Antwerp, began to catch up with the traditionally more prosperous south and eventually overtook Wallonia’s historical economic dominance. To many, the construction of the Sidmar Steel plant outside Ghent in 1962 was allegorical for Flanders’ rise and Wallonia’s decline.

Contributing to widening gap between Wallonia and Flanders was the maturation of a Flemish political class that had been educated entirely in Dutch. Free from the collaborationist connotations of their predecessors and with confidence boosted by economic success, these young Flemings formed the nationalist Volksunie party in 1954. Seeing Wallonia as an economic burden, they unanimously demanded a permanent regional separation along language lines. The Walloon regional movement formed parallel to the Flemish movement as a response to the rise of the new Flemish political class and what they saw as the antagonizing and humiliating behavior of the Flemish politicians announcing the advent of a “new Flanders.”

Linguistic Frontier

The first major language laws of the post-WWII era were passed in 1962. These laws, in conjunction with the language laws of August 3, 1963, divided Belgium into four language zones: the Dutch region, the French region, the German region, and a bilingual region for Brussels. The creation of a formal “linguistic frontier” started a domino effect that irrevocably separated Wallonia and Flanders. Even before the language laws in 1960, the single state broadcasting authority had split into Dutch and French branches. The Ministry of Culture was divided similarly in 1966 and in 1968 all the major political parties in Belgium were divided into French and Dutch speaking components. A planned expansion of the mostly French speaking Catholic University of Leuven into Flemish Brabant sparked massive protests and ultimately resulted in the French part of the university moving to a new campus in Wallonia while the Flemish part stayed. After this precedent, the Flemings demanded a full-fledged Dutch institution in Brussels to counter the French Universite Libre de Bruxelles and in 1969 the Vrije Universiteit Brussel was founded. The events of the 1960’s proved to defenders of the central, unitary Belgian state that constitutional reform was unavoidable. Constitutional reform in 1970 essentially ended the Belgian unitary state and laid the foundations for a federal government. Three “regions” were created, Brussels, Wallonia, and Flanders, and three cultural “communities” were defined as well: French, Dutch, and German. The vague relationship between these “regions” and “communities” was updated and clarified in the constitutional reforms of 1980 that granted substantial cultural and financially autonomy to each of the regions and communities. This autonomy was extended to the German community in 1983.

Further solidification of the sub-national levels of government in Belgium came about in 1988 as a direct result of a small town on the country’s fringes. The rural French-speaking hamlet of Les Fourons was in 1962 caught on the wrong side of the language frontier and was forcibly incorporated into the Dutch speaking region. Renamed Voeren, the town continued to be a symbol of the need to reform the 1962 language laws. In 1982 the people of Voeren elected Jose Happart mayor. Happart, a Walloon nationalist, refused to speak or demonstrate that he knew Dutch, flagrantly violating the 1962 law stipulating that the public proceedings must occur in the language of the region. The issue turned sleepy Voeren into a national media-circus, with Happart being praised as a Robin Hood in Wallonia and denounced as a “terrorist” in Flanders. He has subsequently been elected a member of the European Parliament. The government’s failure to solve the Voeren issue led to its resignation in 1987 and further federal reform in 1988. The 1988 reform left national defense, foreign affairs, agriculture, justice, and monetary issues in the hands of a central state government while passing authority over control of the economy, education, transport and the environment to the regions. Further reforms between 1992 and 1994 solidified the Federal State as well as the Lambermont Agreement of 2000.

One Nation, Two Coinages

The influence of linguistic difficulties in Belgium is immediately noticeable on the nation’s numismatics. The first Belgian coins at the time of independence were inscribed entirely in French reflecting that language’s dominant position over all aspects of the state at that time. Coins with Dutch (or “Flemish”) legends were struck beginning in 1882 and since that date there have been two versions of almost every Belgian coin minted, one in French and one in Dutch. The two coins are minted in approximately equal amounts and are completely interchangeable. They circulate side by side and differ only in the language of inscriptions.

In the 1930s the government attempted to create a unified coinage with the Dutch Belgie and the French Belgique side by side. The king was identified as Leopold III, the same in both languages. This solution never worked because on each coin either Belgie or Belgique must come first and neither side could acquiesce to being second billed. In exasperation the government minted two versions of these coins as well, one version with Belgie-Belgique, the other with Belgique-Belgie.

Attempting to save resources, Belgium experimented in the 1930s with coins that included both the Dutch and French name for the country on the same coin. 5 Francs, 1939 (ANS 1982.46.27).

In 1960, one of the last years of relative unity, Belgium minted a coin commemorating the marriage of King Baudouin. Following the example of Switzerland, a nation that solves the monetary problems associated with being a multi-lingual society by using Latin as a neutral language, the coin was inscribed completely in Latin. Belgium is identified as “Belgica” and even the royal name Baudouin is Latinized to “Baldvinus.” Apparently this didn’t work either because the Latin solution was never extended to any other coins. In 1987, at the height of language hyper-sensitivity, Belgium started to add German legends to commemorative coins although only 0.7 percent of Belgians claimed German as their first language. A 1990 coin commemorating the 60th birthday of King Albert II was minted in three different versions, French, Dutch, and German.

Taking a cue from Switzerland, another multi-lingual European nation, Belgium toyed with using Latin on its coins as a neutral language. It must be inferred that this too proved unpopular, considering that only one coin was minted with Latin. 50 Francs, 1960 Wedding of King Baudoin and Princess Fabiola of Spain (ANS 1961.97.1).

Belgium’s official motto is “La Union fait la Force” or “Strength in Unity,” yet the political situation of the past fifty years has proven to be reflective of anything other than feelings of solidarity. Belgium’s troubled relationship with its monarch and the ongoing schism its language groups is reflected in the nation’s coinage from the end of World War II until the introduction of the Euro.