Red Devils: emblem of a new “Belgitude”?

  • Are the Red Devils harbingers of a new multicultural Belgium in which Vincent Kompany and Stromae are the standard-bearers?
  • Even in Flanders, politicians want to open up the debate on Belgian identity.

“This ‘Belgitude’ is outright laughable.” Jan Peumans, president of the Flemish Parliament, is the only person from the N-VA to speak out on the connections that some seem interested in making between the success of the Diables Rouges and Belgium’s future. Is being a Red Devils fan synonymous with being a fan of Belgium?

“We shouldn’t confuse things,” says Thierry Zintz, vice president of the COIB (Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee) and Olympic Chair for sports organization management at UCL. “First, there’s support for a team whose play and players we appreciate, and that is as strong in Flanders as it is in Wallonia. That automatically leads to support for the concept of Belgium, but we can’t go as far as saying that because you’re a Devils fan means you are a fan of the country of Belgium. Voters are smart enough not to connect the one with the other. Please, let’s not make it into something more than a purely sporting phenomenon.”

Olivier Luminet, psychology professor at UCL and a specialist in collective memory, concurs: “Where I think some are making a mistake is in imagining that the Red Devils are going to save Belgium. The discussion in Flanders, which is sometimes hard for French-speakers to understand, is about the compatibility of being a Red Devils fan and voting for the N-VA and supporting autonomist demands at the same time. Sports can have a strong unifying effect but it doesn’t last. The buzz in France after the 1998 World Cup increased Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin’s popularity by an unbelievable amount, but it only lasted a few weeks. It’s very fleeting. However, in terms of collective memory, it’s very interesting and it’s something that’s lacking in our country. Elsewhere, there are regular references to unifying events, such as Mexico ’86.”

What’s new is that this time the discussion about Belgitude, so common in the French-speaking realm, seems to be happening in Flanders too. “It’s true that the word Belgium is almost taboo in Flanders,” admits VUB political scientist Dave Sinardet, “There’s a fear in Flanders of saying something positive about Belgium, even though all the studies show that the Belgian identity remains the first choice of Flemings. If things are in the process of changing in some parties, such as Green or Open-VLD, it’s somewhat paradoxically thanks to the N-VA’s success, even if, in terms of the electorate, the Flemish debate is flourishing.”

Among the politicians who began the debate is 26-year-old Kristof Calvo, Green member of parliament and the youngest directly elected official in the country’s history. He has written several opinion pieces in the Flemish press to hail this “modern Belgitude,” which he believes is representative of a multicultural society that has moved beyond Community-related questions.

“Today,” he says, “the dominant discussion in Flanders is about nationalism and, in the country’s south, there is a defensive and almost strategic vision of Belgium as the ultimate fortress, a kind of Elio Di Rupo-esque Belgium. However, in neither of these two approaches is there a modern understanding of identity and the society of the future. There is a third way between these two visions. Identity is something completely personal and very diverse. In Flanders, a majority of people thinks that the Belgian part of their identity is important. Three Flemings out of four are proud of being Belgian, and recent studies confirm that. For me, it’s not about pleading for a 100% Belgian identity, but to say that there’s a place in each of us for several identities. If Kompany and Stromae inspire a lot of people, it’s because they are from a hybrid culture, Brussels, the product of mixed marriages, and their approach is free, accepting and kind.”

Faced with discussions that are often inward-looking, Calvo admits, “It’s not the easiest route to choose, but it’s the most courageous, and it’s inevitable. The construction of a multicultural society is not an easy debate to begin. I love soccer too much to try to use it to make a point, but if the hype surrounding the Red Devils can open this debate, that’s great. We can’t be blind: the choice of a society that takes identity into account, both individual and collective, is essentially a political issue.”

JEAN-FRANÇOIS LAUWENS

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