The history of the Walloon movement starts in 1880, a date which historians agree to take as the initial benchmark. Prior to the Walloon Movement as a political phenomenon, there were, from 1856, literary and folkloric movements based around the Society of Walloon Literature of Liège, but it was around 1880 that a Walloon and French-speaking defense movement appeared, following the first linguistic laws of the 1870s. It will take thereafter the character of a movement asserting the existence of Wallonia and a Walloon identity, while not giving up the defense of French language.
Linguistic questions and problems related to take their origin during the French occupation with the first linguistic laws. After the invasion of Austrian Netherlands, French revolutionaries began the “francisation” in the context of their jacobinic politics. By the decree of 2nd Thermidor Year II, only the French language is authorized for all official aspects of life, like administration, law, army, press and school whereas at the Old Regime coexisted French with endogenous languages, sometimes with Latin and even english for business . During the French Consulate and Empire, further francisation mesures were taken, all civil servant had tpo become «French citizen», authorities sent members of French bourgeoisie or French clergy in Belgium to replace the elites of the country and et inversément Belgian elite to France to move them away from their roots and their culture, for example seminarists trained in Paris and Lyon under the impulse of the archbishop of Malines Jean-Armand de Roquelaure, French clerk installed by the French authorities.
After the defeat of the Napoleonic Empire and the Congress of Vienna, the Belgian provinces of the Austrian Netherlands were united with the former Dutch Republic in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands of William I. He, accounting of the historical importance attached to the culture of French language, gave only to the Dutch language the statute of «national language» in order to reduce the harmful influence of French ideas. On September 15, 1819, William of Orange, himself a French-speaker, establishes by royal decree Dutch as official language for justice and administration but without excluding the use of other languages. This linguistic policy of cultural independence and policy toward France contributed inter alia to the Belgian Revolution of 1830 and the linguistic legislation of the first unionistic governments.
Those governments of the young Belgian state, directed by a Francophile bourgeoisie inherited of the French occupation, recognized indeed officially only the French language, even if the Constitution proclaims the freedom of the languages. This linguistic position gave birth in the 1840s to the Flemish Movement. It is in reaction to the linguistic claims of the Flemish movement that appeared the Walloon political movement.
Born in Flanders and in Brussels, a French-speaking movement of defense is set up in circles of French-speaking civils servant to fight against the introduction of Dutch language into the administration which is equivalent for those first Walloon militants to job losses, wasting of money, the infantilisation of the culture and an attack of the national unity. The Walloon movement arrives rather quickly in the south of the country but is confined in the bourgeoisie where the liberals are in the forefront, those considering the Flemish Movement as a clerical machination intended to keep under the heel of the religion the Dutch-speaking provinces which they regard as late.
The first members of the Walloon Movement never make the promotion of federalism or of separatism, they are confined within the defense of Belgium and the French language which according to them is the cement of the unity of the country:
The emerging Walloon Movement thus fits in a Belgian perspective as its contours and especially its linguistic identity was defined for this State in 1830. It regards the acquisition of the French language as a form of adhesion to Belgium and to the great principles of freedom in the Constitution.
A whole series of Walloon leagues will fight during this period against any legislative project concerning the use of Dutch in the official life. The most important of them is the Society of Walloon Propaganda which is created on February 23, 1888 by the liberal lawyer Édouard Termonia. The Society gives itself a triple objective : to defend the acquired rights of the Walloon agents in civil service; to defend French language and culture; to unify under a common banner Walloon leagues of Brussels. It organized the first Walloon congresses: in Brussels in July 1890, in Namur in December 1891, in Liège in November 1892 and in Mons in November 1893. In that last congress, according to Yves Quairiaux, delegates from walloon provinces were in a very clear minority and the assembly voted in favor of the teaching of Dutch language in French-speaking provinces. Those first congresses were not very popular, even less in the southern part of Belgium, and those first actors of the Walloon Movement were not very organized to such an extent that the fifth congress envisaged with Verviers in 1894 is cancelled fault of preparation.
Their main revendication is the unilinguism in French in Belgium and they try to lobby on political men of their time. In 1895, the Society of Walloon Propaganda decide to ask deputies to leave assembly when an orator knowing French will pronounce a speech in Dutch. In 1896, when the Coremans-De Vriendt law is for the first time proposed, the Society of Walloon Propaganda with the help of Walloon League of Ixelles begin a protest campaign, they send petitions to Senate principally signed by communal administrations but also by member of the bar, particularly well-represented in Walloon Movement active in Brussels. It is a question for them of preserving their statute and theirs privileges endangered by the recognition of Dutch in the administration and justice, proposed by the Coremans-De Vriendt law which declares in its first article that “the laws are voted, sanctioned, promulgated and published in French language and Dutch language”.
This famous law Coremans-With Vriendt, called “law of Equality" (“Gelijkheidswet” in Dutch), voted by a short majority and promulgated on April 18, 1898 is a turning point in the history and the claims of Walloon Movement. As of its first proposal in 1895, the movement, which politically was almost confined in Brussels and in the Flanders, receives the contribution of the French-speaking people from southern Belgium, particularly from Liège, who will quickly become the majority. The Society of Walloon propaganda which had been the engine of the Walloon Movement during several years is progressively upstaged and disappears in 1900s after a certain éclat right after the law of Equality after which it creates L’Organe wallon, a publication which will be absorbed, in January 1899, by L’Âme wallonne, published by the Walloon League of Liege. This League, founded in 1897 by the liberal Julien Delaitte, takes quickly the lead of the Walloon Movement.
Shortly after the vote of the Coremans-De Vriendt law, Walloon league of Liege makes a call in Belgium everywhere to create the Walloon National League which appear on May 8, 1898. This new league represents well the 1898-1905 period which shows the gradual affirmation of a political Wallonia at the expense of the interests of French-speakers in Flanders and in Brussels. A last attempt is done in 1899 by the Society of Walloon Propaganda which ask, during a plenary assembly that it convenes, the transfer to Brussels of the seat of management and executive committee of the National League but without success “other towns of Wallonia estimating that Liege was the Walloon capital”.
The political relationship between the Walloon language and the Walloon Movement changes too. Before the law of Equality, this expression even of equality of the languages was not accepted by the Walloon militants who considered Flemish, as with Walloon language, like an idiom. According to them, the Flemings had to give up their idioms like the Walloons had made it. With recognition of Dutch, the will to defend the Walloon language starts appear within the Walloon movement and for example the Walloon League of Liège then starts to publish in L’Âme wallonne many articles in walloon. Its use had remained confined before with the publications of religious and folk organizations. However, the promotion of walloon language will never be strong on behalf of the wallingants, too attached with a certain French Jacobinism.
There is so, among French-speaking elites during that short period, an awakening of political necessity to create a French-speaking unilingual Wallonia in order to avoid to be put in minority everywhere in Belgium after the recognition of Dutch as an official language. Whereas formerly the word Wallonie, word invented in 1844 by Joseph Grandgagnage, indicated a linguistic and cultural area, it acquires slowly a clean political significance. This acquisition of a political meaning is twinned with the federalistic projects in Belgium: shy and little heard until the congress Walloon of 1905, proposals of political Wallonia and of federal Belgium will affirm themselves until giving the letter of Jules Destrée in 1912.
The fifth walloon congress, the first really important, that takes part in Liège in 1905 at the occasion of the Liège International exposition is a new step in the Walloon Movement. It is starting from this date that the autonomist and separatist ideas mature, that will be concretised at the wallon congresses of 1912 and 1914.
The walloon originality is proclaimed at the congress of 1905, but the unitary structure of Belgium as shows Julien Delaite who wanted a pacific and apolitical congress in his speech of pronounced at the occasion in the salle académique of the University of Liège :
We organized it apart from any spirit of party, to expose the right claims of the Walloons and to exalt the walloon spirit. We do want to criticize only what is criticizable, but we want to say everything, say it without fear. We do not attack the Flemings, but we intend to whip the flamingant exaggerations that threaten the integrity of the Belgian fatherland. We want also to clarify what the Walloons were in the past, what they carry out in the present, what they aspire for the future.
It is the last congress where walloon militants defend the unity of the country, even the national unilinguism as tried to do Julien Delaite at the occasion. Thereafter, administrative, or even total, separatism will always be preached by the Wallingants. The congress of 1905, under the patronage of the government that did not fail to amuse some militants like Hector Chainaye, reunite twenty-five societies and more than five hundreds individual adhesions: there were politicians, artists, men of letters but also industrialists, all of them were mostly liberal and inhabitant of Liège. The Walloon movement always gathered very little conservatives, the majority of the wallingants were liberals of Brussels and Liège until this congress but this is socialists who take the hand after it.
This massive arrival of socialists comes not only from a linguistic cleavage, but also a political cleavage. We see in Belgium since October 1884 a succession of catholic governments which get most of its electorate from Dutch-speakers. Liberals and socialists decide to organize themselves in a cartel in the entire country for the legislative elections of June 2 1912 and provincial elections of June 9 1912. **This leftist pole doesn't gain the elections and it is in this heavy atmosphere of defeat that is held the congress of 1912 which begins on June 7, 1912 and which is at the origin of a profound change inside the movement. The majority of walloon militants, and this for a few years, have considered whereas the catholic conservative majority in North is installed for a long time and that makes sterile the leftist majority in the South, which the newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws underlined during the project of flemishisation of the University of Ghent: «Again we draw the attention of everyone to the tactics of the opponents to Flemish Movement: they know that they are swept everywhere in Flemish areas - consequently they must excite the Walloons». This observation weighs heavy in «the passage from a unitarian antiflamingantism to the strictly Walloon claims». The congress of 1912 is then the occasion to clearly assert the administrative separation and the existence of Wallonia. This political proposal, already timidly advanced since 1897 and 1898 respectively per Albert Mockel and Julien Delaite, becomes one of the principal claims of Walloon Movement starting from this “Congress of combat” as its organizers define it. And it is during the same congress of 1912 that Walloon nationalism is really born : a Walloon Assembly is made up as an unofficial Walloon Parliament of which the goal first is the promotion of the idea of an administrative separation with the unilinguism in Wallonia and bilingualism in Flanders. This obvious imbalance in the Walloon claims will only radicalize the Flemish Movement. **This passage suggests the Catholic government lost the 1912 elections but it actually won and that should be made clear here.
The Walloon Assembly is really the first unified walloon organism and it acquiered et it quickly acquires a great influence on the Walloon Movement that it keeps until the beginning of the 1930s. This unofficial parliament will be the symbol of the combat for the autonomy of the Walloon nation, it will define the walloon flag and also the way the country should be divided administratively in two with the choice of Namur as capital and the division of the province of Brabant. Choice what will follow the Germans within the framework of Flamenpolitik intended to destroy Belgium. In spite of the defense of unionistic theses, the policies of the Walloon movement are shown intended to irrevocably divide Belgium.
This is also in the spirit of these congress that socialist Jules Destrée write his Lettre au Roi sur la séparation de la Wallonie et de la Flandre, letter that represents perfectly with the Walloon Assembly that period of the Movement. Extremely agitated period of toughening as show the events happened during the “Joyeuse Entrée” of king Albert I in Liege on July 13, 1913 when he is welcome by separatists demonstrations : The socialist and republican newspaper Le Peuple wrote «When, between provincial palate and the Town hall, crowd breaks the police cords protecting the king, the exasperated wallonisants benefit from the distress for to express with the royal family their aspirations of independence. Holding up the Walloon flag with the red cock, they precipitate towards the pram and balance under the nose of the king the new colors». It adds that «while flowers fall from the stages rises the dominating cry “Lives Wallonia!”». Other newspapers as the Gazette de Liège minimized these demonstrations.
The First World War revives the patriotic spirit in Belgium, especially after the application of the Flamenpolitik by German occupying forces during the war. Even though the majority of the wallingant and flamingant organizations ceases their activities, a minority of Walloon and Flemish militants will make activist collaboration with the occupant. Walloon activism is even more marginal than Flemish side, but it seem less handled by the German authorities than this last. At the end of the war, walloon and flemish activists will be severely judged but only Flemish activism will be used during interbellum against flemish revendications since Spring 1919 whereas Walloon activism sinks into oblivion, the French-speaking press and also Wallingant propaganda papers to buckle down to create an image of a “Flandre embochée” (German-friendly Flanders) :
It is true that French-speaking press won't cease to discredit on all flemish by amalgaming it with activists' actions led under the high patronage of the hatred Germany. Indeed, since Spring 1919, press articles begin to associate activism and Flemish Movement ; that will create an image of a “Flandre embochée” […] At the end of the war, walloon activists are judged with the same virulence that their flemish counterparts and for the same reasons. But, once condemned, they disappear from memories; whereas flemish activism is more and more used against flemish revendications.
The experience of World War I and the revive of Belgian patriotism brake the Walloon Movement that only began to affirm itself few years early, and are a source of division in the Movement. The Walloon Assembly, at that time the standard-bearer of wallingant revendications, adopt a Belgian nationalist position, position opposed to its prime goal. That involves tensions with the more radicals wallingants who then leave the Assembly and its satellites. These tensions arrive at the moment of linguistic law of July 31, 1921 which envisages the constitution of 3 linguistic Regions, two unilingual - one Dutch-speaking and a French-speaking - and one bilingual. Even if in the facts the bilingual communes and of the Dutch-speaking Area and the French-speaking Area become all French-speaking and that the bilingualism of Brussels was also regarded as a victory by the French-speaking people, this law is felt as a threat by the Walloon militants because it blames the experiment up to now unilingual of Wallonia: the law provides indeed that the other language can be used in each linguistic Region. Despite every amendments brought to the law at the Senate, only three walloon deputies on fifty-nine with the Room will vote for it: fifty and one vote against and six abstain from. Since 1920, the Assembly undergoes a large disaffection and loses its more famous names whereas create for themselves dissenting leagues a little everywhere. The Action Committee of the Walloon Assembly in Liege becomes a new Walloon League of Liège and affirms itself more and more since 1923 as the new leader of the movement. This league undertakes then to do a hard work of propaganda: from 1924 to 1930, it organizes seven annual congresses from which is born a new gathering of walloon associations, the Walloon Concentration.
The supremacy of the new Walloon League of Liège and its Walloon Concentration represents well this period of radicalization for wallingantism. The 1930s are a period of radicalization for many reasons : Linguistic law of 1921 stipulating the use of Dutch language in Wallonia, the reciprocal radicalization of Flemish Movement, and in the heavy atmosphere with the birth or consolidation of ideologies as fascism, communism or nazism.
The Walloon Concentration, initiated by the most radicalized factions, organize since 1930 the congresses of the Walloon Concentration. The first is organized in Liège the 27th and 28th of September 1930 at the occasion of the Centennial of the independence of Belgium with the wish of the organizers that all trends extremist and moderate should be represented. The congressists all rally in one instransigent motion : the French identity and integrity of Wallonia and the recognition to Flemish people of their own identity. Their position is the total regional unilinguism. They decide that it is within the framework of Belgium that the solution for the Walloon-Flemish disagreement should be found and it implies a constitutional revision and they decide to this end to create a commission to work out a project to be presented at the next congress. At this next congress, the commission presents its choice : a federalist project, preferred to a provincialist project more moderated and to a simple separatism. A text of resolution is rediged and the unanimity of congressists ratify it, except 9 abstentions mainly delegates of the Arrondissement of Brussels. This resolution is also the first important text where christian leftists are involved in, as Élie Baussart.
This return to the ideas of 1912 and this inversion in the Walloon claims to the profit of a unilingual Dutch-speaking area comes mainly from the fear of the "flemish islets" — a tool of the Flemish "imperialism" in wallingant speeches — in the French-speaking provinces because the linguistic law of 1921 envisages the use of Dutch there. Moreover, many Dutch-speakers settle in the South of the country to work and that does not appreciate by the wallingants because these new populations are often close to the Catholic Party and could call into question the unilinguism of their Wallonia. At the same time, the linguistic law is also regarded as dangereous by Flemish militants because according to them it contributes to territorial nibbling in favour of the French language. The wallingants then put agreement with the flamingants. On March 16, 1929, wallingant Destrée and flamingant Camille Huysmans sign, with 26 other socialist deputies within the P.O.B, the "Compromis des Belges" (Compromise of the Belgians) for the linguistic and cultural homogeneity of the Flanders and Wallonia, leading to the linguistic law of July 14 1932 which prescribes Dutch as the official language of the Flanders, and French as official language of Wallonia, consciously sacrificing the linguistic rights of the French-speaking people of Flanders.
Other congresses of the Walloon Concentration are organized to the war, as the congress of 1935 during which the militants assert the right for the Walloons to dispose of themselves. Those of 1933 and 1936 are the occasion to affirm the need of an economic collaboration between France and Belgium and to criticize the Belgian foreign policy of neutrality asserting which it is wished by Germany and that a bringing together with France was preferable, position registered in the Francophile tradition of the Walloon movement. The congress of 1937 is the abandonment of the federalist project for confederalism in order to favorize a Walloon foreign policy, notoriously pro-French.