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Belgians unite in UNESCO bid to reclaim ‘French’ fries

Belgian humorist Herr Seele poses next to the 'winning cornet' during a potato fries contest in Antwerp in 2006
Belgian humorist Herr Seele poses next to the 'winning cornet' during a potato fries contest in Antwerp in 2006 Kris Van Exel, Belga/AFP
2 min

Belgians seldom agree about anything, but they all know their country’s unity hangs by a potato thread.


The thread is in fact one centimetre thick, rectangular and fried twice, most often in beef fat. People around the world call it "French fry". But that, the Belgians say, is a “misnomer”.

The origin of potato fries – or chips, as the British call them – has long been a matter of dispute. Belgians say they invented them, but so do people in northern France. For both, they are a national treasure.

Belgium blames American soldiers stationed in French-speaking Wallonia during World War I for first referring to the Belgian national dish as “French fries”.

Americans later infamously renamed them “Freedom fries”, albeit only briefly, in protest at France’s refusal to back the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Last year, the Flemish community of Flanders launched a bid to gain UNESCO world heritage status for the greasy potato sticks. Their French- and German-speaking compatriots have now lent their support.

Historians say they may have difficulty proving parentage of the beloved “frites”.

“Potato fries belong to the realm of street food for the poor, which is why it’s so difficult to establish a birth certificate,” French historian Madeleine Ferrières told Le Point magazine.

According to one theory, fries were invented in the 17th century by the people of Namur, in southern Belgium, when the town’s river froze and fish were replaced with potato slices.

Another folk tale claims they first appeared on the Pont Neuf in Paris during the French Revolution. Neither hypothesis is popular with historians.

French and Belgians also disagree over how to eat them.

In France, “frites” are generally served with a piece of meat and eaten with a knife and fork, whereas Belgians tend to eat them in cones and with their fingers.

Except people in northern France also eat them in cones – which may explain why La Voix du Nord, a local daily, wants the region to join the Belgian bid.

Wallonia’s Agriculture Mininster René Collin has said he would welcome his French neighbours, though adding: “Belgian fries remain the world’s best”

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