Visiting Quiévrechain, France: fluid borders and spellings and the greening of a municipality
A toposemantics of transition
The French municipality of Quiévrechain, in the Valenciennes arrondissement of the Nord department, has always been on territory of transition. During the Ancien régime, Quiévrechain bordered onto territory of the Austrian Empire (before there was the independent Kingdom of Belgium).
In fact, some territory east of Quiévrechain's current border with Belgium was formerly part of France, coming under the jurisdiction of this locality. Since 1779, whether with the Austrian Empire and its successors in the southern Netherlands, and, from 1830, with Belgium, Quiévrechain's international, eastern boundary has been marked by the stream known as the Aunelle.
In the 19th century, geological surveys led to the establishment of coal mining in the locality; between them, two pits were active over a 70-year period until the mid-20th century. A mining concern dominant in the area was the Crespin company.
At its height in 1975, Quiévrechain's population had reached 7269, but by 2009 this had diminished to 5843, with a proportion of the work-force having moved elsewhere. The former mining pits and their surrounding environment underwent a thorough process of greening. Attractive parkland and green fields have replaced the former mine workings, and lend themselves to peaceful walks along the Franco-Belgian border area. What at first glance seem like very gently undulating hill country turns out to be greened over slag heaps from the mining era.
I walked through this parkland and onward to the interesting hamlet of Marchipont, though which the Aunelle runs, 'half' the hamlet is French, and 'half' the hamlet is Belgian.
One reflection that suggests itself is that during the mining era, it must have been difficult for the mining company and its miners to keep track of the Franco-Belgian border in the mine's underground workings.
It is interesting that, what at first may seem a straightforward border demarcation by means of the Aunelle stream, is actually more complex. Ask a Belgian official about the border stream, and chances are that he or she will refer to it as the Anneau. (The alternative form Honneau also occurs in Belgium.) In fact it would seem that, while the French concept of the Franco-Belgian border here is defined by the name Aunelle, a Belgian one would be almost be described as the 'anything-but-Aunelle'. This is all dependent on which side of the stream one is actually standing.
Neither is this anomaly limited locally to this particular border stream. The Aunelle is also a tributary of a river which rises in France and is called by one name, runs into Belgium for several kilometres under another name, and then flows back into France again, reverting to its French name!
Sometimes it is hard even to stand near the banks of this border stream. The area is prone to flooding, and without doubt to the unpractised eye this makes the border demarcation even more difficult to discern, not to say, to understand jurisdictionally.
Interestingly, Aurélie Filippetti, French Minister of Culture at the time of writing, is the author of a novel in which a background theme of jurisdictional and historical complexities in French border mine workings (1) is present. This theme is set within the broader ramifications of community and linguistic borderland polarities. It may be fairly said that all the aspects of these paradigms presented by this prominent novelist and political figure are relevant and present at least to a greater or lesser extent at Quiévrechain.
This locality would not count as containing some of France's leading tourist attractions, but its green, border parkland is worth visiting, and it is also very interesting for its industrial heritage and what might be termed its sense of the toposemantics of transition.
May 18, 2013
(1) Aurélie Filippetti, Les derniers jours de la classe ouvrière, Editions Stock, 2003 (English: 'The last days of the working class'). (Neither Minister Filippetti nor the French government endorses the above comparison, which is made simply from the perspective of fair comment about a novelist's work.)
Also worth seeing
At Blanc-Misseron, Quiévrechain, Sacré-Cœur church was completed in 1894.
Valenciennes (distance: 13 kilometres); sights include its City Hall with an ornate, 19th century frontage; the 16th century Maison espagnole; the Saint-Cordon Basilica, the Beaux-Arts museum; and many others.
How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National; distance: 95 kilometres) from where car rental is available. The Belgian railroad company SNCB / NMBS maintains a service between Brussels and the Belgian border town of Quiévrain, adjacent to Quiévrechain. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada
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