High life shared with lowland neighbours

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I first visited Paris when I was 14 years old with my Belgian godmother. She had been excited about the trip for days. France is the "big sister of Belgium", she repeated over and over, a wonderful, richly, cultured country. To my teenage amusement, she spent most of our short stay in a fury and a depression at the rudeness of the Parisians, which she attributed to her Belgian accent.

Parisians, of course, need no excuse to be rude. They are quite contentedly and naturally rude to one another. But it remains true that a Belgian visiting France needs a thick skin and a sense of humour, which fortunately many Belgians have. Four-wheeled Belgian visitors say that, as they drive through Paris, passers-by point at their tell-tale red and white number plate and double up with laughter.

The "histoire belge" is a staple of French wit, just as Irish jokes are thought to be funny by some in Britain. The Belgian joke typically presents the northern neighbours as crudely provincial, slow or surreally dotty. Why are Sabena pilots refusing to land at Charles de Gaulle airport? Because the runways are only 100 metres long but two kilometres wide.

Such jokes still tend to define most French people's view of Belgium, particularly those who have never been near their country's northern frontier.

As someone proud to be a half-Belgian, the nature of the Franco-Belgian relationship has been in my thoughts recently. But not just my thoughts. French and Belgian relations are usually as uneventful as the relationship between Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire.

In recent weeks, however, there has been a series of diplo-economic spats between the two countries. Renault's decision to close, without warning, a factory near Brussels caused outrage in Belgium (and, to be fair, widespread sympathy for Belgium in France). The Belgian police complain that France refuses to take seriously a series of cross-border investigations, including an extradition request for the French businessman, Serge Dassault. Beyond that, there has been serious talk in the Belgian and French press, and by serious French and Belgian politicians, of Wallonia rejoining France if the Flemish part of the country continues its pell-mell course towards independence. This is no longer the fantasy it might have seemed a few years ago.

More positively, one of the most interesting cultural events in Paris at the moment is an exhibition at the Grand Palais, off the Champs Elysees, entitled Paris-Bruxelles, Bruxelles-Paris 1848-1914. The exhibition traces the rich and confused cultural cross-currents - artistic, literary, musical and architectural - which flowed between the two cities in the 60 or so years after railways brought them within a few hours of one another.

French painters, such as Courbet and Manet, were encouraged, exhibited, imitated and - most importantly - bought in Belgium while they were still execrated in France. In the mid-century, practically the whole equipe nationale of French literature - Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephane Mallarme - spent long periods in Brussels escaping political persecution or starvation.

It was in Brussels that Hugo wrote and published Les Miserables. It was in Belgium that the poet Verlaine shot and wounded the poet Rimbaud and spent two years in jail. Baudelaire scratched a kind of living by giving readings in Belgium when no one would reward him in France. He remained rather poor, however and, envious of the sometimes crassly deployed wealth of the Brussels bourgeoisie, turned viciously anti-Belgian. To this day, some Belgians blame him for initiating their unfortunate image in France. "Qu'il avance ou qu'il recule, le belge est toujours ridicule (Going forwards or backwards, a Belgian is always ridiculous)" wrote the ungrateful poet.

By the fin de siecle, the artistic traffic was two way. Art Nouveau began in Brussels and flourished in Paris. The Belgian poets Emile Verhaeren and Maurice Maeterlinck were lionised and spent long periods in France. Maeterlinck's Pelleas et Melisande was turned into an opera by Debussy. Like Georges Simenon, Tintin, Jacques Brel and Johnny Hallyday after him, Maeterlinck became so popular that the French forgot he was not French.

The emblematic painting in the exhibition is one showing Verhaeren and Maeterlinck sitting with Andre Gide and other French writers. The composition, by the Belgian painter Theo Van Rysselberghe, looks ominously like a turn of the century prototype for the bookish chat-shows which would come to haunt French late night television.

The show should be compulsory viewing for any half-way cultured French person who ever cracked an anti-Belgian joke. But it also carries an important, rather tragic, message for those contemporary Begians who seem bent on dissolving their country. Over and over again, it is apparent that what attracted the French artistic elite to Brussels, apart from the cash, was the richness, the oddness, the freshness, of its dual Flemish-French cultural heritage. It is just this heritage which is now being bureaucratically, dogmatically and pedantically compartmentalised by the present generation of politicians.

Next week we are receiving a state visit from my Belgian godmother, who will be 90 later this year. She despairs of contemporary Belgium but remains a committed Francophile. She is looking forward to coming, she says, because France is "the big sister of Belgium, a wonderful, richly, cultured country etc etc". Her accent remains a give-away but least she is coming by the TGV high-speed train and will not have a red and white numberplate.