The Power of Naming: Territorial Restructuring and the Neutralisation of Regional Particularities in Northern France

In 2008 the film Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis gained immense popularity and soon the picturesque French-Flemish town of Bergues, where the film was recorded, was put on the map. Soon after the release of the film ch’ti tours became the number one tourist attraction and shopkeepers were keen on serving their customers Ch’ti bread and Ch’ti sausages. But while the so-called ‘ch’ti craze’ or ch’timisation was perhaps beneficial in economic terms, there were plenty of French Flemish clearly dissatisfied – not only with the film itself which reinforced the stereotypical image of ‘le Nord’ “where red-brick terraces cluster for warmth around the lower slopes of slag heaps; where incest, drunkenness and unemployment are taught in primary school; where the people have empty pockets, loose morals, brutal accents and warm hearts”, and of course, where it always rains, but especially because in Bergues people do not speak Picard, or Ch’ti, at all. Bergues (St. Winoksbergen) is actually situated in what is referred to as the Westhoek, a part of France which actually has Flemish origins. As a response to the ch’timisation flags with the Flemish Lion increased as well as stickers with ‘Bienvenue Chez les Flamands’ that are still found on cars throughout the Westhoek region.

While the ch’ti craze was undeniably generated by popular media, the stigmatisation of the Nordistes, and in particular that of the French Flemish, is rooted in a history of oppression by the French state. And while the French state might no longer impose policies with the explicit aim of homogenisation as was the case in the 19th and 20th centuries with its educational, administrative and cultural programs (see Weber 1976), there are still traces of implicit state strategies that contribute to the neutralisation of regional differences. The relatively recent French territorial restructuring is an example of the manifestation of the symbolic power the state holds, a manifestation of its legitimacy of the “power to name, to identify, to categorize, to state what is what and who is who” (Brubaker & Cooper 2000: 15). I would like to argue here that territorial reforms and the renaming of the region are political acts, acts of nomination, and that the state is a very powerful identifier able to impose taxonomies and that by creating a narrative of what something is, it simultaneously conceals or suppresses opposing narratives.

The official name of Nord-Pas-de-Calais was given to the Westhoek region and larger surroundings in 1790 when the French structure of the departments came into being and the department ‘Nord’ and ‘Pas-de-Calais’ were fused forming a territory whose name carried no historical or cultural connotations (Labourdette and Auzias 2010). One of my informants described his discontent about the region’s name:

“Pas-de-Calais, it’s the name of the sea between France and England. Pas-de-Calais, you live nowhere. […] ‘ils viennent… ils viennent du Pas-de-Calais.’ and there is a silence… ‘ils viennent du Pas-de-Calais.’ So in the collective imagination this means: they are from nowhere. Pas-de-Calais [looks at me questionably and shrugs his shoulders] c’est quoi ça?” – Informant A, 02.07.16

The restructuring of the departments was a product of the Revolution, a project of territorial rationalisation which rejected and resisted regional diversity and subsumed the regions into the unitary and indivisible Republic. As stated by Romain Pasquier, the departmentalisation of France demonstrated a clear association between a large-scale political project and territorial reform (Pasquier 2015). The territorial reforms, both then and now, can be considered as neutralising forces imposed by the state, as ‘acts of nomination’ which express the “monopoly over legitimate symbolic violence which belongs to the state or to its representatives” (Bourdieu 1989: 21) and which involves the legitimate imposition of categories of classification “with which bureaucrats, judges, teachers, and doctors must work and to which non-state actors must refer” (Brubaker & Cooper 2000: 16). Territorial reforms can thus be seen as a political act as they classify and define boundaries; it is the symbolic fabrication of the regions, an act of nomination by the state, which, “under the appearance of simply saying what is, tends additionally and tacitly to say what ought to be” (Bourdieu 2000: 187).

France’s recent territorial reform entailed a fusion of the regions Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy, regions that have some shared characteristics but certainly have developed their own particular history and culture. According to some of my informants the territorial reform has a clear purpose for those in power since

“the ‘political class’ has aimed to restructure the state to their own liking for a long time already. It is the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that crushes the rights of the minorities (the right to their own language and culture).” – Forum Member ‘Cornelis’ 29.09.16

But the national discourse around the restructuring of the regions is a discourse of modernisation and development, one of catching up and of “prepar[ing] the France of tomorrow”. The territorial reforms have a strong economic logic in the first place: adapting to the global competitive field; creating European-sized regions with increased competences that are capable of building territorial strategies and attracting capital; but most importantly, making an end to France’s infamous ‘mille-feuille’ of layers of government by simplifying territorial administration and rendering it more effective. But informants highly doubt that the reforms are an exclusively pragmatic project, especially when Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy had to be renamed a strong emphasis was put on the fact that the region now came to be defined in terms of its geographical position with regards to Paris.

As ‘Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie’ was not a very catchy name, a name change was announced in the hope to find “one that could reaffirm the identity of the region, as Xavier Bertrand, President of the Regional Council, stated just before the final vote. Polls started to appear on websites of regional newspapers; while one claimed that the name Flandre(s)-Artois-Picardie was by far the number one choice, others declared that Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie still was considered the best option. From all the published polls, there did not seem to be much of a consensus, not that it mattered much because most of this proved to be for mere amusement and distraction: a “plaything given to [the people] by Paris just to amuse themselves” for soon the Regional Council – led by Xavier Bertrand – announced to let students decide over the future name of the department. The students were to propose 10 potential names of which the Council would then present three to the general public. An online poll would then again allow people to express their preference among the three chosen ones: Hauts-de-France, Nord de France and Terres du Nord. Comment sections on essentially all news articles related to the name change reveal the commotion caused by this ‘democratic’ approach.

“… in French people say c’est pour amuser la galerie […] the French president has decided everything in his palace in Paris with his friends depending on the political color of the next elections. The Right has a better chance, so voilà. […] [And for the] conservatives, Nord equals socialism. So the… in the circles of the patronat, in the economic circles of the region, they have introduced the name Hauts-de-France a long time ago already.” – Informant A, 02.07.16

The final outcome of the entire procedure came to be Hauts-de-France, a rather ironic choice for it refers to one of the most low-lying regions as well as a region which adjoins the Low Countries…

“… those with a bit of knowledge about France will search for [Hauts-de-France] in the Alps or the Pyrenees or – if necessary – in the Massif Central […] Because of course it is only ‘haut’ when there is a map [of France] on the wall!” – Informant C, 10.07.16.

Of course after the name change, there was little hope for a regional logo that would be capable of representing the territory, especially when the Regional Council yet again decided to call upon students to fulfil the task [1]. It is not surprising then that many of my informants also voiced their dissatisfaction addressing Xavier Bertrand’s ‘peculiar understanding’ of democracy and questioning the Council’s approach. On the day that the name ‘Hauts-de-France’ officially entered into force I received the following message:

“You’ve read it on the front page of La Voix du Nord today: the Council of State has approved the new name of the Grand Region… Even for the renaming of the region the approval of Paris was necessary! The same goes for the budget. The region does not have any fiscal autonomy. The French state hands over a budget each year. The regions (since 1982) are THE symbol of decentralisation…” – Informant A, 30.09.16

But from informants and online discussions it becomes clear that this symbolic fabrication of the Hauts-de-France region does not go unchallenged, and nor did any previous state attempts to neutralise French-Flemish regional particularities. Over the past two decades there has been a renewed interest in regional identity which has manifested itself in the emergence of civil society organisations promoting French Flemish history and culture to put the region on the map and to emphasise an identity that has historical references that connect the region to its Belgian neighbour [2]. The commercial sector and regional authorities have also picked up on the revival of regional interest, and increasingly realise the economic potential of putting the region’s cultural capital into use. Despite the state’s efforts to turn the regions into blank slates, local actors are involved in a struggle over regional identity, over the power of ‘making and unmaking’ of groups. Resistance from various groups against the state’s efforts to suppress the French Flemish language, history and culture is not a new phenomenon, but the strengthening of forces in the field is, and it has led to region branding in commercial and non-commercial forms with actors having different motivations and aspirations, but still they are all part of a strategy of dissociation.  The recent territorial reforms and the renaming of the region might have given a further impulse to the labour of representation and symbolic production on the local level, the above-mentioned state efforts to neutralise difference could now increasingly lead to the reaffirmation of difference, and this could have interesting consequences for les Hauts-de-France (which might well acquire a more prominent position in relation to les Pays-Bas).

 

References:

Brubaker, Rogers, and Frederick Cooper. 2000. Beyond “Identity”. Theory and Society, 29:1(1-47).

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1989. “Social Space and Symbolic Power.” Sociological Theory, 7(1):14-25.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Labourdette, Jean-François and Dominique Auzias. 2010. “Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Picardie.” Petit Futé 2010-2011.

Pasquier, Romain. 2015. Regional Governance and Power in France: The Dynamics of Political Space. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan

Weber, Eugen. 1976. From Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France 1870-1914. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[1] The new logo is empty of connotations to cultural or historical aspects of the fused regions, it has the shape of France accompanied by a heart located at the top of the hexagon, and it would be difficult for an outsider to recognise it refers to a particular region.

[2] The most prominent organisations active for the promotion of the French Flemish culture and identity are: Yser Houck, KFV, ANVT, and Radio Uylenspiegel. These organisations are accompanied by others that have a particular – if not exclusive – focus on language such as la Maison du Néerlandais, les Amis du Néerlandais and APNES.

Post by Sam Hurulean, Header image via BIDU-Dessinateur.

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