Flemish in France
Research Centre of Multilingualism
Version française
Flemish in France
  1. Introduction
  2. The language in the country
    1. General information on the language community
    2. Geographical and language background
    3. General history and history of thelanguage
    4. Legal status and official policies
  3. The use of the language in various fields
    1. Education
    2. Judicial Authorities
    3. Public Authorities and services
    4. Mass media and Information technology
    5. The Arts
    6. The business world
    7. Family and social use of the language
    8. Transnational exchanges
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

There is no dat for this topic.

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2. The language in the country

2.1. General information on the language community

Flemish is spoken in the north-west of France by an estimated population of 20,000 daily speakers and 40,000 occasional speakers. It is spoken alongside French, which is gradually replacing it for all purposes and in all areas of communication. It is a variety of Western Flemish that belongs to the Dutch sub-group of the German language family. The existence of Flemish in the area is evidence by its use in place names since the eighth century, in ninth-century commentaries and 13th century administrative documents.

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2.2. Geographical and language background

Flemish is spoken in north-western France, in the area between Dunkerque, Bourbourg, Saint-Omer and Bailleul. This area roughly covers the arrondissement of Dunkerque (Nord-Pas-de-Calais Region). It is often referred to as "Flandre maritime" (maritime Flanders) and people used to speak of "Flandre flamingante" (Flemish Flanders) as opposed to "Flandre Lilloise" or "Flandre wallingante" (Walloon Flanders). Outside this region, other varieties of the same language are spoken in Belgium (in Flanders and Brussels, as well as a few Communes in Wallonia) and the Netherlands, by 5.6 million and 12 million speakers, respectively. The language is also used in some old Dutch colonies, including some Caribbean islands and Suriname. The Dutch language is also the basis of Afrikaans, which is spoken in South Africa and Namibia.

The region has a total population of 3,932,939, or 7.24% of the total population of France, and 320 people live in maritime Flanders. The total population of the Nord Département fell by approximately 5000 between March 1982 and January 1986. Population density is around 317 people per km 2 and a third of the population is under the age of 30, whilst 16% is over the age of 60. Emigration is taking place, especially from towns whose livelihood has been based on the mining, iron-and-steel and textiles industries. According to our correspondent, Flemish has virtually disappeared from urban areas.

According to Röhrig (1987), some 20% of people living in maritime Flanders are of Flemish mother-tongue. However, only 5% of them use Flemish on a daily basis. The enormous differences that can be observed between the generations seem to point to the disappearance of the language. The generation of grandparents divides into 36% French-speakers, 38% Flemish-speakers and 26% using both languages, whereas the generation of parents divides into 75% French-speakers, 25% Flemish-speakers and 25% using both languages. The younger generation uses the languages in the proportions of 99% French, 1% Flemish and 8% both. A study conducted in 1981 also pinpointed a decline in the use and knowledge of Flemish among young people, in comparison with their parents. Only 5% of young people said that they often used Flemish, in comparison with 54% of their parents; 23% of young people used Flemish sometimes, in comparison with 22% of parents; and finally, 72% of young people said they never used Flemish, in comparison with 54% of parents. From the point of view of passive knowledge of the language, only 11% of young people said they had a very good knowledge, in comparison with 46% of their parents; 32% of young people said they had some knowledge, in comparison with 23% of parents; and 57% said they had no knowledge, in comparison with 31% of parents.

In terms of the economy, the Nord-Pas-De-Calais Region comes fourth in the list of France's 21 regions as regards gross domestic product, but falls to 16th place in terms of per capita gross domestic product when the large number of people who are unemployed are taken into account. It has the highest emigration rate in France, with some 10people having left the region every year between 1980 and 1990. The primary sector focuses on agriculture and fishing and, although agriculture provides employment for only 5.5% of the population, the region has the third highest agricultural output in France. A third of the fisheries catch is obtained along the 140 km of coastline. The traditional industries are textiles, mechanical engineering, glass and iron and steel. The number of coal mines fell from 109 in 1945 to just 4 in 1987. The textiles industry employs 70people, accounts for a fifth of jobs in the region and produces a quarter of France's textiles output. The atomic energy produced at the Gravelines power station in Dunkerque accounts for 12.4% of France's nuclear energy. The iron-and-steel company SOLLAC employs 15people in the region. The food industry is currently expanding, with companies such as Nestlé, Suchard, Bonduelle and McCain having plants in the region. Since the 1970s, job losses in the mining industry have been offset by the development of the service sector, particularly in the areas of health care and goods haulage.

In an area which, until 1950, had close on 50 seasonal or frontier-zone Belgian workers, the reverse is now true, with some 50 workers from the Nord Département working in neighbouring areas of Belgium.

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2.3. General history and history of the language

Flemish is based on the Frankish introduced by the conquering Franks following the decline of the Roman Empire around 406 AD. The French Flemings can trace their cultural and linguistic roots back to the time when the region was ruled by the Counts of Flanders, from 892 onwards - a heritage that was not broken by the fact that the region later came under the rule of France, the Hapsburgs, Spain and the Netherlands. French Flanders became a part of France in the late 17th century. The Nord and Pas-de-Calais Départements were created in February 1790. French Flanders became a definitive part of France in 1713.

Dutch was still being used in maritime Flanders as the language of literature and local administration up to the time of the French Revolution. Since then, Flemish has lost all its links with language and cultural developments in Belgium and the Netherlands and now survives only by oral tradition. The links with its unique linguistic past are gradually disappearing because of acculturation with respect to the old mother tongue.

The last few years have seen tensions surrounding the fight for the free Uylenspiegel radio station between 1978 and 1982. In 1981, the workers' college of Hazebrouk brought together a number of cultural associations to publish a manifesto for the teaching of the old mother tongue. The introduction of options in Flemish language and culture in six secondary schools in 1982 gave rise to rivalries concerning the teaching of Flemish as opposed to Dutch. In 1986, the teaching of Dutch was promoted in primary schools in south Wervik. Then, in 1989, Dutch classes were introduced in the primary and secondary schools of Bailleul. These two projects were undertaken as part of a programme of exchanges between France, the Netherlands and Belgian Flanders. None of these initiatives had the primary aim of influencing language policy or preventing the disappearance of the Flemish language in society.

There has been no opposition movement in the linguistic field but the lack of support by regional and national authorities has placed obstacles in the way of initiatives whose purpose was to promote the traditional Flemish language and culture.

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2.4. Legal status and official policies

The Flemish language is not afforded any legal status in France, either by central or regional institutions. It enjoys no official recognition, either by the public authorities or by the education system.

According to our correspondent, Flemish plays no part in legislation, except in the Savary Memorandum (Ministerial Memorandum 82-261 of 211982), which promised financial support for the teaching of regional languages in schools and universities for a period of three years. Again according to our correspondent, implementation of this memorandum has had very little effect.

The population, we understand, is of the opinion that the French Government does not feel that Flemish helps to enrich France's heritage but that, on the contrary, it sees it as being of little value. Consequently, it provides no support for the language in the region.

As for the regional authorities, apart from a few statements of principle, they have done nothing practical to support the Flemish language. Their cultural policy actually tends to be hostile to Flemish-speakers.

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3. The use of the language in various fields

3.1. Education

Dutch is taught as a foreign language at primary, secondary and post-secondary level. Responsibility for this teaching lies with the Vice-Chancellor of Lille. By contrast, classes are never taught through the medium of Dutch.

The past few years have seen a significant increase in Dutch classes, particularly in Bailleul. The unique situation in Bailleul is explained by historical reasons (Dutch remained the teaching medium, both under Louis XIV and the Republic) but mainly by the activities of a few eminent promoters in Bailleul, such as the current burgomaster, Delobel, who speaks very little Dutch himself but is strongly committed to everyone in the area learning the language.

This rising trend applies to the teaching of Dutch as a foreign language, whilst interest in regional Flemish continues to decline. The ambiguous relationships between the teaching of Dutch as a foreign language and regional Flemish is leading to some lack of understanding between employees in the cultural and educational sectors, on the one hand, and Flemish activists, on the other. Policy measures to support one or the other of these languages prevent anyone from having an objective view, as do the nationalist movements that are supported by Belgian Flanders. Language schemes do not enjoy the support either of French linguists or of scientific research. There are a few State regulations governing the teaching of Flemish history and culture. However, of the six secondary schools that originally introduced classes in Flemish, only one is still offering this option.

There are no inspection bodies supervising Dutch teaching at the same level as for other European languages. The State has, moreover, taken no measures to support, encourage or offer Dutch classes outside the region.

Dutch is not used in pre-school education. However, Dutch is offered as an option in primary schools in south Wervik and Bailleul. 820 pupils have currently opted to study Dutch in Bailleul, where the teaching of Dutch is most actively promoted.

Dutch is an optional subject in some secondary schools. There are currently some 500 pupils who have chosen Dutch as an option. History and geography textbooks are available in Dutch. In general, there has been a relative increase in use of the language in secondary education.

Dutch is taught as a modern foreign language at the universities of Dunkerque and Lille. There has, however, been a reduction in interest at this level. Only some 120 students are currently enrolled for Dutch studies at these universities and our correspondent explains this drop in student numbers by, among other things, the fact that there are no links between Dutch as a foreign language and its historical use in the region.

The Government offers Dutch classes as an adult education and continuing training subject. Initiatives in this area tend to come from individuals or local policy-makers.

Training for Flemish teachers was introduced in Lille in 1983 but abandoned just a year later, in 1984.

The Professor of Dutch at Lille has for years been trying to introduce the Dutch Certificat d'Aptitude au Professorat de l'Enseignement Secondaire (CAPES - Diploma of Education) in France. He is supported in his efforts by the Nederlandse Taalunie (Dutch/Flemish intergovernmental organization).

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3.2. Judicial authorities

The use of French Flemish is not permitted before the courts.

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3.3. Public authorities and services

According to our information, central government makes no use of Flemish at all. It would appear that the use of French Flemish is not permitted by the regional authorities and that its use is advised against by the official authorities. The same seems to apply to the local authorities. In brief, the State is not taking any measures to ensure use of this language by the public authorities.

All public services are offered in just one language - French. This applies, in particular, to telephone bills and receipts, telephone directories, hospital signs, electricity bills, signs for post offices and police stations. Flemish is not used at all at this level. Nor is it possible for service-users to use French Flemish in their contacts with the various public and semi-public bodies.

Apart from a few street names in Flemish, all road signs are in French. Over the past five years or so, it has, it seems, become common for house names to be in Flemish.

Place names are correctly used in their traditional form and it is also possible to use Flemish surnames. It is certainly possible to choose a Flemish given name, but this remains relatively rare.

Research on dialect is being conducted in the region by the University of Ghent in Belgium, but forms part of a study of Dutch dialects in general and does not take any particular account of French Flemish. The language situation in the region is not being studied by any of France's linguistic or sociological research centres.

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3.4. Mass media and information technology

The use of Flemish in the media is not officially authorized.

Daily newspapers

There are no daily newspapers in Flemish (the regional dialect has no written form).


Three French periodicals, Platch'iou (Dunkerque), Revue de l'Houtland (Steenvoorde) and Yserhouck (Volkerinckhove) regularly contain articles on various aspects of Flemish in France as well as articles in regional Flemish or Dutch.

The periodical KFV-Mededelingen is published in standard Dutch. As the quarterly newsletter of the Komitee voor Frans-Vlaanderen ([Belgian] Committee for French Flanders), it provides news, a cultural diary and articles on tourism, the economy and ecology.

The bilingual yearbook De Franse Nederlanden/Les Pays-Bas français (The French Low Countries), which has been published annually in Belgium for the past 19 years, offers a dozen scientific articles (written in an accessible way) on cultural and economic life in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, focusing particularly on cross-border contacts. It has a column on the Dutch language in France.


The Radio Uylenspiegel radio station in Cassel broadcasts 10% of its programmes in Flemish. This independent radio station originally operated illegally, until it gained legal status in 1982.


There is no television station broadcasting in Flemish.


French Flemish has no written form.

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3.5. The Arts

Existing publications are mainly school books. A single regional Flemish tutor was published in 1992.

Since 1989, the history section of the KFV has published three leaflets. These are distributed internally and a few articles have been published in the local press.

In the music world, mention might be made of two vocalists: Raymond Declercq from Coudekerque and Maryse Collache from Dunkerque.

The border Commune of Westouter has a Belgian theatre group called Volkstoneel voor Frans-Vlaanderen. Flemish plays are staged each year in Flemish villages in France. There is no activity worth mentioning in the film world or as regards cultural festivals.

Cultural activities are supported by some Communes, such as Bailleul, Hazebrouck and Wormhout. However, the Flemish cultural centre in Hazebrouck, which was set up in 1981, is not currently offering any activities.

There are a number of unofficial organizations that take an interest in promoting Dutch language and culture, including the Centre Michiel De Swaen in Bergues. The Komitée Nederlands Onderwijs and the Komitée voor Frans-Vlaanderen also promote the teaching of Dutch; the Tegaere Toegaen promotes the teaching of Flemish; and the Comité flamand de la France and the Association Foirante are also active.

According to our correspondent, the State does not prohibit cultural activities, but it does exhibit attitudes that are generally opposed to Flemish movements. We have been told that the French State is not making any moves to come to the aid of the Flemish language in the cultural domain.

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3.6. The business world

Knowledge of Flemish is never a condition of employment.

The language is never used in advertising. Labels and instructions for use are not printed in Flemish.

Flemish has no role to play in the business world. It would also appear that the regional and local authorities have not developed any policies either to promote or restrict use of the language in economic and social activities.

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3.7. Family and social use of the language

The use of Flemish within the family has diminished to a tiny percentage since the Second World War. Flemish is now really only used by a very small number of families. This trend started in the period between the Wars since when there has been a total upheaval as regards language use.

Courting couples speak to each other in French, which means that it is reasonable to state that all households are endogamous, that is, French-speaking. Moreover, although there was still a difference in the language education of young women in the 1930s, with girls being taught more French than boys, there is no longer any difference now.

Although 20% of priests speak French Flemish, mass is celebrated in Flemish only very occasionally. The catechism exists in a bilingual version, with the latest edition dating bach to 1936, but it has not been taught in Flemish since the last War. There is no Flemish translation of the Bible.

As regards attitudes, the Flemish language is usually associated with inferiority and is seen as old-fashioned. Most speakers think the language will disappear completely in the next couple of generations. They see the language as being of some, albeit small, use for the future, whereas people who do not speak the language see it as being of little use. Despite the fact that young people have some interest in learning Flemish as a foreign language, they do not use it in their daily lives. People who still have a passive knowledge of the language feel that it helps them to learn other Germanic languages.

Interest in Dutch classes is growing among young French-speakers but the number of young people who speak Dutch remains small.

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3.8. Transnational exchanges

Experimental Dutch classes have been offered at primary and secondary level since 1986 within the framework of a programme of exchanges between France, Belgian Flanders and the Netherlands. However, since French Flemish is considered to be a variety of Dutch, there is a tendency not to perceive it as a native regional language.

Contacts have also been established in the areas of commerce, tourism and environmental protection.

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4. Conclusion

French Flemish does not enjoy any official recognition in France, with the exception of a Ministerial memorandum of 1982, which was supposed to facilitate teaching of the language. Despite the additional obstacle of the absence of any written form of French Flemish, its relationship to Dutch, which is one of the official working languages of the European Union, could contribute to its preservation. Knowledge of Dutch is, moreover, vital for any understanding of the historical background and cultural and linguistic roots of the region. This knowledge is also extremely useful for economic and tourist dealings with the region's Belgian and Dutch neighbours.

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