Explaining Differences in Belgium: Why Flanders seems to be less in the grip of anti-gender mobilization

While politically not as decisive as elsewhere in Europe, anti-gender mobilizations seem to develop more slowly in the Dutch-speaking civil society of Belgium than in the French-speaking one. We suggest that this discrepancy between Belgium’s two main political spheres is, among other factors, due to three historic political features.

Contrary to Flanders, which has been much more inhibited by Catholicism, Wallonia has been strongly influenced by the industrialisation of the 19th century. The development of its heavy coal and steel industry went hand in hand with the founding and development of the Belgian Workers’ Party. Its successor, the Social-Democratic Party, still has its stronghold in Wallonia. While it faces declining membership rates and votes like all other traditional parties in Belgium, it still manages to capture 30% of the seats in the Walloon Parliament. For comparison, its counterpart in Flanders, Vooruit, holds 10% of the seats in the Flemish Parliament.

In Flanders, which remained largely rural until the 20th century, Catholicism retained its influence for longer. The Catholic Party, founded at about the same time as the Belgian Workers’ Party, had its stronghold there. However, church attendance and religious practice have decreased over the decades. Additionally, the Dutch-speaking successor of the Catholic Party, the CD&V, decreased considerably, especially since the beginning of this century. It has but 15% of the seats in the Flemish parliament. The French-speaking successor of the Catholic Party, les Engagés, also has roughly 15% of the seats in the Walloon parliament but has never been as strong as the CD&V. Despite this, the Catholic Church still has its influence especially in Flanders, through well-established links with the political establishment, and through the public school system.

A second important feature on which Flanders and Wallonia differ, is the popularity of conservative and radical right parties in Flanders. The radical right, Vlaams Belang, is one of the strong holders within the European family of radical right parties. It goes back to the end of the 1970s and obtains electoral scores of 19% and more in the Flemish Parliament. Its MPs use anti-gender discourses and support an anti-gender policy agenda in parliament, especially on their own (social) media.

More recently, the leader of the conservative right in Flanders, the N-VA, a nationalist party striving for the independence of Flanders, started a crusade against what he calls ‘the madness of wokism’. His book on the topic argues how ‘wokism’ destroys his understanding of a Flemish culture, which is marked by whiteness, Judeo-Catholicism and cisheteronormativity. He tours through Flanders and its universities, contributing to the mainstreaming of anti-woke discourse. The party dominates the (Flemish) party landscape. It has put forth the Minister-President of the Flemish government since 2014 and maintains a firm grip on the federal government from the opposition. Simultaneously, the party makes a point of being LGBTQI+ friendly. Scratching the surface of that discourse shows that its homonationalism serves to stigmatize people of colour (mainly Muslims) and that its LGBTQI+ friendliness actually sustains heteronormativity and racist ideals of a Flemish nation-state.

Hence, in Flanders, anti-gender thinking is strongly embedded within mainstream politics. While not openly arguing against gender equality, these three parties uphold cisheteronormativity and defend conservative family values. In the French-speaking part of Belgium, the conservative and radical right are close to non-existent. They neither have seats in the Walloon parliament nor at the federal level. Thus, for highly conservative actors defending an anti-gender stance, there is a bigger necessity to come out in the open to express their position.

Finally, both sides of the country tend to nourish their relations with the neighbouring country speaking the same language, Flanders with the Netherlands and the French-speaking part of Belgium with France. But whereas the Flemish authorities very much invest in political relations with the Netherlands, Wallonia and France foster a strong cultural and intellectual bond. The ‘Manif pour Tous’ and other anti-gender mobilizations taking place in France found their way into the French-speaking public opinion of Belgium, echoing similar – though yet less developed – discourses and requests. Recently, mandatory sexual education in Francophone schools was protested on the streets and by setting schools on fire. A debate which is very present in France but rarely attracts attention in Flanders.

The existence of these two political spheres in Belgium has consequences for researching this country. Because of the two language spheres, we are actually researching two cases: the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking case. Taking their political differences into account in every step of the research process is crucial for the CCINDLE project. 

By Petra Meier and Rylan Verlooy