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Incidentally Maurice Carême was a Walloon

A former reader for Wallonia-Brussels International in Hungary, I had the opportunity of working for the Wallonia-Brussels Federation on the scheme to promote our arts and culture abroad. In light of France's influence through its French Institutes around the world, promoting our literary, artistic and cinematographic talents is a significant task for Walloons and Brussels' residents. Consequently, we must focus our energy on our uniqueness as French-speakers but nationals of a country which, by an accident of history, affects France without France being able to make a similar claim.

But while we cannot be content to walk in the shadow of a large partner, neither can the role of the Wallonia-Brussels International readers be limited to bringing Walloon and Brussels creation out of the shadow that France might cast. In this instance, we would need to define ourselves compared to our neighbour, or even worse, risk a pointless competition. On the contrary, by emphasising our uniqueness and reaffirming it like our Quebecois or Swiss partners, we will help to strengthen our identity and forge ourselves an image which is clearly identifiable abroad: we can be French-speaking without being French.

On leaving my position at the Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, I thought that the visibility of the French-speaking Belgian as an actor independent of French language creation was evolving towards a constantly growing influence. However, on returning to my duties in the French Ministry of Education, I was forced to conclude that there was still a huge amount to be done to legitimise our arts within the French school system.

A simple example illustrates my point: while preparing a poetry class, I noticed as I flicked through a commonly used textbook that the French-speaking African authors were given a specific biography, which naturally opened the debate about the diversity of the French-speaking world. However, all that appeared for Jacques Brel and Maurice Carême were their dates of birth and death. By omission, two of our jewels were assimilated into French culture without any mention being made of their country of origin, ours! It doesn't take much to see the lack of any malice on the part of our French friends, but rather the consequence of an intimacy so old that we have lost our distinctive points of reference within it, like the wife, as talented as she was, forced to live in the shadow of a great man.

But the absence of malice does not excuse us from our responsibilities: just as Amélie Nothomb or Stromae never fail to leave a certain imprint of ‘Belgitude ‘on their work, the purveyors of culture, teachers, essayists, universities and cultural bodies should make it a rule to quote the milestones of their heritage. Far from a strategy of excluding others through self-confinement, to the contrary, this works to build the foundation of our identity with our partners, French, French-speakers and Europeans, that can serve as a basis for healthy mutual inspiration.

In practice, the task boils down to a few things; if we return to our old friend Carême, far from denying any link between the poet and France, we simply need to assert with the equanimity of evidence that he was a Walloon. As for our friend Brel, he sang about Brussels, its streets, it words, its accent. No more, no less.


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