Playing with Matches: the Musée de Flandre, Cassel, France

Is there a hidden agenda of some Greater Flanders patriots within the local administration of France’s Département du Nord? Or are the local officials and citizenry simply blind to what is going on in neighboring Belgium? Read on….


Playing with Matches: the Musée de Flandre, Cassel, France



by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



France, alongside the United States of America, is probably the only republic/nation-state which defines citizenship in terms of adherence to political principles rather than linguistic, religious, ethnic criteria. In the United States, a citizen is someone who has solemnly pledged allegiance to the Constitution. In France, a citizen is someone who has solemnly accepted the guiding principles of the French Revolution: Liberté, Fraternité and Egalité. And notwithstanding all the public fuming among French political elites about the burqa and the dangers of Islamism, political correctness in France still boldly favors mixité. The French seem confident that their secular culture can keep the melting pot simmering domestically and ensure the continued existence of l’Hexagone in its familiar contours externally.


But then ever since casting off nearly all of its empire and declaring the remaining bits and pieces offshore to be constituent parts of the Métropole, France has been fortunate in that potentially disruptive territories such as the Pays Basque or Corse have not had big successful brethren across the border capable of giving support and encouragement to separatist longings. Police actions so far have been entirely successful in nipping in the bud any ethnic or linguistic minority in France having separatist dreams.


It is only in the context of such complacency that I can make sense of the otherwise peculiar measures which French officials are taking at present to revive a Flemish consciousness in the territory of Flanders which Louis XIV conquered in the last quarter of the 17th century and where the government has successfully carried out a policy of cultural homogenization over the course of three centuries.


My interest was first drawn to the town of Cassel by the intriguing play on words in the name of the art museum which (re-)opened there in October 2010. Officially its website tells us this is the Musée de Flandre, Cassel. The subtitle in smaller script adds: un musée du Département du Nord.However, elsewhere the names get conveniently mixed and we find, for example, that the institution’s ‘partner’ is shown as ‘Les amis du musée départemental de Flandre.’ I will not belabor the point, but the deft switch in terms allows one to believe there is a French administrative region of Flanders when none exists. Meanwhile, the promotional literature bills the new cultural institution as France’s first and only museum dedicated to “the richness of the cultural and artistic identity of Flanders.”


And so yesterday I drove the 165 kilometers from Brussels to Cassel to see for myself what is afoot, whether there is skullduggery by some Greater Flanders patriots who have quietly taken the levers of power in the departmental administration or just some well-meaning boosterism by a tourist office hard-up to create local attractions for the otherwise very meager inflows of visitors to this economically depressed region… or a bit of both.


To be sure, one day on the ground is scarcely enough time to reach any firm conclusions. But the evidence gathered on the spot does suggest the combined explanation: a hidden agenda by some, furthered by simple-minded enthusiasm of others who seem not to be paying much attention to what is going on in neighboring Belgium or to understand that it can have relevance for themselves.


The area of the museum and its building are filled with symbolism which has been consciously exploited by the museum and communal officials of Cassel.

The area’s key moment in history came in April 1677 at the Battle of Cassel when French forces overwhelmingly defeated the army of William III of Orange, giving conclusive momentum to a favorable outcome of the Franco-Dutch war which had lasted several years. The peace terms set down in the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen gave the French definitive control over a large swathe of what was known as the Spanish Netherlands, meaning Cassel, St. Omer and a good many other Flemish cities.


If planting the departmental museum in a town which experienced a crucial event leading directly to the present day political configuration were not enough to get the point across, the museum curators have seen fit to restore and install in one of main exhibition rooms (emotively entitled ‘Submission and Anger’) the 1887 monumental painting by Francis Tattegrain showing a still earlier scene of local humiliation: Cassel citizens in the swamps of St. Omer placing themselves at the mercy of Philippe the Good, Duke of Burgundy and (by dynastic marriage) Count of Flanders on 4 January 1430 after unsuccessfully revolting against his rule.


The museum building, the hôtel de la Noble Cour, served as the administrative and court center of the region for more than 500 years under a succession of non-local, non-Flemish rulers. It has been handsomely restored. The foundations date back to the early Middle Ages. It presents High Renaissance facades from the early 17th century onto the Grand Place of Cassel. The rear of the building overlooks the surrounding countryside.


The place name of the town derives from its Roman origins as a fortified elevation, a hill said to be partly manmade which rises 515 feet above the surrounding plains of Flanders and provides the visitor with splendid views said to reach to Dunkerque to the north and Belgium to the East when the weather is favorable. We are told that during a visit in 1803 Napoleon surveyed the flat lands of the Pays Bas from Cassel to his great satisfaction. This being winter, the views were more modest yesterday, but pleasant nonetheless.

The magnificent permanent exhibition of Flemish art from the 16th and 17th centuries on display in Cassel proves that the museum curators are both very smart and very persuasive in obtaining paintings on loan, mostly from private collections in Belgium or in nearby French museums in Valenciennes and Lille. At the same time, it was interesting to note that all descriptions of the art works are in two languages: French and Flemish.


That is interesting because no one in the town of Cassel seems to speak a word of Flemish. I was told by fellow French diners at the aptly named Taverne Flamande that their parents’ generation did know some Flemish. Given the age of the clientele, this likely places the last bearers of the language in their 70s or 80s.


Could the bilingual texts have been done for expected tourists from abroad? Indeed, the lady at the museum’s reception desk told me that 40% of all visitors to the museum are coming from Belgium. But to my further question, she acknowledged that all of them seemed to be French-speakers!


I would add to this one further perplexing feature of a museum in provincial France unlike any other: their prized acquisitions over the past several years happen to be not just one or two splendid Flemish Primitives of the 15th century but also works by three living and highly visible Belgian (Flemish) artists: Jan Fabre, Patrick Van Caeckenberghe and Leo Copers. I will not venture to say just what this means, but the tendentiousness might set off alarm bells if Paris cared to take notice.


At this point, I will take a step back from sleuthing on the ground and return to the virtual world of internet search. Several current terms used in literature by and about the Département du Nord/Pas de Calais include Flandre Intérieur (or Inner Flanders) and Pays Coeur de Flandre. The latter ‘heart of Flanders’ is not merely a figure of speech but a large scale regional program existing outside the conventional French state hierarchy but vested with key economic and social tasks for the region. This ‘land’ counts 120,000 inhabitants among the participating communes and is located geographically between Dunkerque and Lille. The organizers have posted online their 61 page Charter of Sustainable Development dating from 2003, which makes fascinating reading.


It is curious to find, for example, that the section on ‘demographics’ deals only with such issues as the increase of single-parent families and the age distribution of the population, since these elements have measurable economic impact on employment and social services. On the other hand, the notions of native-born, naturalized or foreign resident do not seem to exist, nor is there mention of ethnicity.


Indeed the entire Charter is describing a region defined by common cultural heritage of Flanders while it totally ignores Flemish language and ethnicity as if they never existed. The naiveté of its authors is perhaps most shocking on page 26, where it identifies possibilities for developing partnerships with neighboring territories over priority issues. Here we find ‘the Belgian Province of West Flanders’ named as the candidate for developing trans-border projects.


Given the separatist movement that is steadily taking control of Flanders, a movement that has effectively paralyzed the Belgian federal government for the past eight months by its refusal to accept compromises which would ensure the continued long-term survival of the Kingdom, it is remarkable that authorities in north-east France still see possibilities for mutually beneficial cooperation.


Moreover, to turn the tables around: on what basis would Flemish nationalists enjoy cooperating with a neighbor who has brought about the Flemish nightmare on his soil: stamped out the Flemish language and identity on what was once purely Flemish territory, territory which is presumably still populated largely by descendants of the same stock? All of this defies comprehension.


When thinking about French-Belgian relations in the event of some split-up of the Belgian state, it has been traditional among the French to think of rattachisme, the rush by Wallonia to re-join the French-speaking brethren across the border. This possibility, which the French treat dismissively today, has hardly any supporters within Belgium itself. What seems to have evaded the attention of the French is reverse rattachisme, a rush some day in the not too distant future, of the Flemings who constitute the majority of the population in northeast France, to re-join an independent and wealthy Republic of Flanders. In a word, it behooves Paris to pay a bit more attention to what is afoot in Cassel….and in Brussels.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2011

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G. Doctorow will be a panelist in the Round Table entitled “Is There a Future for Belgian Federalism?” at the 2013 World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities, Columbia University, New York City, 18 April 2013