The 2015 Tour finally enters France during Stage 4 on its way from Seraing, Belgium to the town of Cambrai along France’s northeastern border, a mere 36 km (22 miles) from the border. Even though the creation of the EU in 1999 eliminated the need for riders to metaphorically “show” their passports, any of the Tour’s transnational crossings offer an exciting opportunity to experience two counties in a single spot. As is usually the case along any border, however, the cultural differences from one kilometer to the next are sometimes negligible. In this part of the world, especially, “ownership” has shifted for a millennium. As a result, the people and customs of France’s Nord department have evolved with its fluid borders. One of these evolutions was the formation of a French-Flemish culture. Aside from the hint of non-French place names, perhaps the best illustration of this culture is the Nord department’s unique Dutch dialect of French Flemish (or West Flemish) which is an official language there.
The existence of Flemish in this part of today’s France has existed since the 8th century. The geopolitical back and forth, though, is confusing to say the least thanks to the North European Plain. This is an expansive area of fertile, easily traversable coastal plains with waterways that nearly guarantee plentiful agriculture and accessible transportation. The result has been an almost constant competition for supremacy and resources across this region over time, including Alsace-Lorraine, the Rhineland, and of course Flanders. Even the fluctuating history of “Cambray” tells this story – from Roman outpost to Frankish occupancy, ruled by the Court of Flanders, governed as a disparate ecclesiastical state, then part of the Netherlands, and finally acquired by France in 1678. It is no wonder that residents have traditionally held onto their linguistic heritage and identity as a constant amid instability.
In a world in which European borders are essentially meaningless, however, French Flemish offers a tangible history lesson. It has only been since the French Revolution that French Flemish has gradually declined. Today, only about 40,000 French Flemish speakers remain, accounting for 1.5% of the total Nord department population. It is invisible on the landscape, but the language is an authentic and highly local cultural remnant that flavors any visitor’s experience. Why not welcome the Tour into France – “Welkom bij Frankrijk!” – and experience the best of both France and Flanders with this unique mixture of the two.