Flemings and Walloons

Regional elections for the Flemish Parliament, the Walloon Parliament, the Parliament of the Brussels-Capital Region and the Parliament of the German-speaking Community were held in Belgium on June 7, 2009.

CC Cris L-1

The political and social history of Belgium has never been smooth or tranquil. A long period of territorial annexations (by Spain, Austria, France and later the Netherlands) was followed by the Revolution of 1830, which led to the creation of a centralized state in the form of a parliamentary monarchy. Despite its small size, Belgium is a country of sharp geographic and economic contrasts, and from the outset its history has been marked by conflict between its two principle populations, the Flemings and the Walloons. Today Belgium is a federal state made up since 1994 of six imperfectly overlapping political-administrative entities: three geographic, territorial regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels-Capital) wielding primarily economic authority, and three linguistic communities (Flemish-speaking, French-speaking and German-speaking) with primarily educational and cultural authority (see map). To complicate matters, the economic balance has recently been reversed: Wallonia, which long dominated with its steel and coal industries, is gradually being overtaken by Flanders, strong in chemistry and new technologies.  Flanders now shows a considerably higher GDP per inhabitant than Wallonia and much lower unemployment (5% in 2008, as against 15% in Wallonia). This cultural and economic duality is also found at the demographic level.


The Brussels-Capital Region has the same status as Flanders and Wallonia within the federal structure but is distinguished from them in two respects. Though it measures only 161 sq km (barely 0.5% of the national territory) its population of one million represents 10% of the national total. Enclosed within Flanders, it is primarily French-speaking—around 80% of inhabitants speak French according to informal estimates (censuses cannot collect information on language[s] spoken). But officially the region is bilingual, and the Brussels government and parliament include MPs and ministers of both linguistic origins. Brussels is not only the capital of Belgium and the European Union but also of the “French community of Belgium,” encompassing French-speaking inhabitants of Brussels and Wallonia, and the Flemish community and region.

Differential transition paces in the nineteenth century

As an effect of industrialization, education and the receding influence of religion, the birth rate in Wallonia began falling in 1870, along with that in many other European countries but 30 years ahead of Flanders (Figures 1 and 2). In 1920 it was hardly above 2 children per woman while in the northern part of the country it remained at 3. Only later did the gap begin to close. Likewise Flanders, the poorer region, showed excess mortality throughout the nineteenth century.

Moderate population growth for Flanders throughout the twentieth century; a slight decline expected by 2060

The Flemings, considerably more fertile than the Walloons for nearly a century and already greatly outnumbering them in 1870, continued to multiply. They represented nearly 58% of the population in 2007—6.1 million of the country’s 10.6 million total—while the Walloons represented 32% (3.4 million) and Brussels-Capital, nearly 10% (1.0 million). But the gap is expected to narrow: the population of Flanders began falling in 1980, and was down to 1.65 children per woman in 2004, as against 1.75 in Wallonia and 2.06 in Brussels. According to projections for 2060, the weight of the population of Flanders should decline 3 points (to 55%) while Wallonia increases 2 points (to 34%) and Brussels remains stable (10.5%); the country’s population is expected to rise from 10.6 million (2007) to 12.7 million in 2060.

Considerable but differentiated ageing

Like all European countries, Belgium is ageing but at a pace that varies by region (Figures 1 and 2). Flanders is ageing more quickly than Wallonia due to thirty years of lower fertility and the fact that the large post-war generations there are or will soon be hitting 65. From 2007 to 2060, the proportion of over-65s in Flanders will rise from 18% to 28%; the corresponding rise in Wallonia will be from 16% to 26%, while in Brussels, set to remain the youngest region by far, the expected rise is a mere 5 points, from 15% to 20%­. Moreover, Brussels has a considerable population of foreign-born residents whose fertility is higher than the national average. Most measures in favour of older persons (allowances, minimum income) are decided at the federal level. However, in its concern about ageing, the Flanders region has recently made dependence insurance compulsory.

Excess mortality in Wallonia

Until 1930, Wallonia’s mortality and morbidity levels were lower than Flanders’. Since then mortality there has risen considerably, especially among men, while the rich and economically dynamic Flanders has improved considerably. In 2006, there was a three-year difference in life expectancy between the two regions (75.1 years in Wallonia, 78.1 in Flanders); that same year a nearly five-year difference was found between Flemish Brabant in the north (78.8 years) and Hainaut in the Walloon south (74 years). The gaps are slighter—around 2 years—but just as real for women. The heavy excess male mortality among Walloons, particularly pronounced in poor areas, is due to greater frequency of cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, road accidents and generally speaking more widespread risk behaviour (diet, smoking), combined with lesser use of preventive medicine (Figure 3).

Greater mobility in Wallonia; declining interregional mobility

Flanders and Wallonia also differ with regard to mobility. Flanders is smaller than Wallonia but more densely populated (450 inhabitants/sq km as against 200 inhabitants); mobility there is also lower. In relative terms, mobility between Wallonia and Brussels is considerably more intense than between Flanders and Brussels. In the last fifty years, the country’s two main regions have become increasingly closed off to each other. Movements between them have been halved, the sign of a growing gulf between them.

More traditional behaviour in Flanders

As elsewhere in Europe, Belgium has been experiencing changes in family make-up and lifestyles and religious practice in the last 30 years.

Change in this area is slower in Flanders: in 2004, for example, the proportion of children born outside marriage was lower there (26%, as against 46% in Wallonia and 52% in France) as was the divorce rate and proportion of single-parent families and cohabiting unmarried couples.

Secularization, particularly advanced in the cities, is further along in Wallonia than Flanders. In 2006, the baptism rate in Wallonia was 54%, as against 69% in Flanders; 53% of funerals were held in churches as against 70% in Flanders. Furthermore, Walloons traditionally votes more heavily for the left.

In conclusion

Despite some persistent disparities, however, demography in Belgium no longer seems a heated political issue. The context is no longer that of the 1960s, roiled by the Sauvy Report attributing Wallonia’s economic lag to its demographic ageing and recommending a firmly pro-birth policy.

While the future of each region still depends on federal policy, regional and community-specific policies will be having ever-greater impact as Flanders acquires increasing autonomy.  

Contacts: Dominique Tabutin, Bruno Schoumaker, Thierry Eggericks (UCL, Louvain-la-Neuve)

Online: June 2009