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Rhetorical strategies of legitimacy and authority in times of Covid-19: The case of Belgian PM Wilmès

Stratégies rhétoriques de légitimité et d’autorité en temps de Covid-19: Le cas de la PM belge Wilmès
Irit Kornblit
Cet article est une traduction de :
Stratégies rhétoriques de légitimité et d’autorité en temps de Covid-19: Le cas de la PM belge Wilmès [fr]


Nous analysons les discours de la Première Ministre belge Sophie Wilmès au cours du mois de mars 2020, au début de la crise sanitaire du Coronavirus, ainsi que sa couverture médiatique. Nous examinons par quels moyens rhétoriques la PM construit son autorité et la légitimité des mesures sanitaires imposées au public, en prenant en compte le contexte particulier de la culture politique belge. Wilmès construit un ethos collectif d’unité au niveau fédéral et expert, établit un lien d’empathie avec la population et appelle à la solidarité. Elle évite le pathos et la métaphore de guerre, utilise des arguments rationnels et construit un auditoire hétérogène.

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  • 1 A majority government couldn’t be formed since December 2018 because of the ideological cleavage be (...)

1In Belgium, the Covid-19 crisis breaks out in the middle of another, political crisis, as the country has been functioning under a minority interim government for the last two years.1 Sophie Wilmès, the first woman to ever hold the post of Prime Minister in Belgium, is at the head of this government. Appointed four months earlier by her predecessor Charles Michel when he assumed the presidency of the European Council, she is a virtually unknown figure. One can thus only assume that her starting point, in terms of legitimacy and personal authority, is not as optimal as that of her geopolitical neighbors, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.

2We undertake a rhetorical analysis of the discursive construction of authority and legitimacy in a situation of political crisis. We explore the following questions: How does Sophie Wilmès construct and reinforce her legitimacy and establish that of the strict Covid-19 measures in her discourse? How does she build a discursive ethos of authority when the public barely knows her, in order to get the citizens’ cooperation? How does Belgian political culture, characterized by multiple linguistic and cultural communities requiring large and multi-coloured coalitions, inform this construction of legitimacy and authority? Finally, Belgium being geographically a small country, how does Wilmès position herself discursively vis-à-vis her more dominant and long-known political neighbors, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel?

3The corpus we are analyzing is composed of Wilmès’ first three speeches broadcast on television, announcing the social distancing measures at the federal level in March 2020. To evaluate their effectiveness with the audience, we also analyzed the press coverage of these speeches in the Belgian, national and regional written press, in Dutch and in French, looking for their reception, evaluation, and interpretation in the media.

4The methodology used here combines rhetorical argumentation and discourse analysis with the study of crisis communication. In addition, we pay special attention to cultural context and gender, taking into consideration Belgian’s political culture of pragmatism and Wilmès’ gender as a woman politician.

1. Political culture in Belgium

  • 2 Comparable to the German Länder or the American states.

5Belgium is a federal state made up of three regions:2 the Flemish Region (57.6% of the population), the Walloon Region (31.9%) and the Brussels Capital Region (10.5%). Three communities cross or overlap these regions according to a linguistic-cultural division: the Flemish, French and German-speaking communities. Each of these federated entities has its own parliament and government. The government and parliament at the federal level do not have exclusive power over the federated entities, but nevertheless retain certain powers, including the management of public health (Belgian Federal Public Service 2020).

6Belgian federalism is complex and fragile (Vandermotten 2020: 4): Flanders and Wallonia are at odds with each other on many issues, to the point that it has become impossible to form a government without a coalition of several antagonistic parties. This reality has given rise to the pragmatic political culture of “Belgian-style compromise” or compromis à la belge, which is characterized by so-called “rainbow” or “Vivaldi” governments (Faniel & Sägesser 2020: 7, n. 4). However, at the outbreak of the health crisis, an interim minority government had been in operation for almost two years because of the impossibility of forming a negotiated government. The national motto, “Unity is strength”, then appears “out of step with reality” (Vandermotten 2020: 18) In the face of this institutional crisis, Wilmès' rhetorical strategy was characterized by a call for unity, which was staged both in her performance and in her speech.

1.1. March 2020, “the crisis within the crisis3

  • 3 Van de Woestyne (2020)
  • 4 Fédéral et Régions resserrent les rangs, La Libre Belgique, 3 March 2020
  • 5 Antwerp’s mayor Bart de Wever refused, for instance, to follow these federal-level recommendations (...)

7The World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global state of emergency on January 30, 2020. On March 1, the first Belgian citizen tested positive for coronavirus. The next day, PM Wilmès forms an extraordinary committee composed of the minister-presidents of Belgium’s regions and communities.4 Although Federal Health Minister Maggie De Block still mentions “mild flu” at the March 5 plenary session, the following week, the atmosphere changes and the government finally “recommends, on March 9, gatherings of less than 1000 people, and working from home at the national level. “Recommends,” because the federal government is not yet invested with the legislative power allowing it to really prohibit at the national level and governors and mayors may still decide on the measures enforced in their areas of jurisdiction according to what they see fit5 (Faniel & Sägesser 2020: 15).

  • 6 The CNS comprises the relevant ministers at the federal level (Heath, Education, and Interior) and (...)

8On March 11, the National Security Council (CNS)6 is formed for the first time since the Brussel’s 2015 terror attacks. This analogy says a lot about the crisis involving forces that seem unpredictable and uncontrollable. The next day, the first deaths are announced (three dead, 399 sick), the Council holds its first meeting, and the PM delivers her first speech. We analyze this speech of March 12 (speech I) announcing the social distancing measures, which include the continued teleworking, the closing of schools, and of shops during the weekend. We will also analyze the speech of March 17 (speech II), day of the formation of a new executive government Wilmès II. This speech announces the legislative validity of the previously “recommended” measures and thus includes sanctions for the first time, as well as the closing of non-essential stores on weekdays. Lastly, the speech of March 26 (speech III), when the Wilmès II government receives new executive powers by the House of Representatives, announces the extension of the measures by two times two weeks, i.e., one month.

2. Theoretical framework and methodology

2.1. Authority, legitimacy and rhetoric

9According to Max Weber (1970: 78), the States power’s legitimacy is based on three types of authority: 1) tradition, 2) the political leader’s personal charisma, and 3) the law (giving the State the right to exercise violence and domination over its citizens). Authority is therefore an implicit contract between the dominant and the dominated, based on legitimacy. “Authority is a legitimized power,” Hannah Arendt writes (1966: 97), a definition that Marc Angenot also adopts (2013: 8). However, authority excludes, for these scholars, physical force and coercion (Angenot ibid., Arendt 1966: 93) and is, on the contrary, linked to trust, credibility, and credit, based on reason (ibid.: 6, 10). Nothing forces us to accept it, except the citizen’s free reasoning and doxa. One could argue, as does Arendt (93), that authority, being based on hierarchy, excludes the need for persuasion. However, the need to justify the adopted measures in the eyes of the citizens so that they accept them willingly, to inspire them with confidence and to give oneself credibility, places the verbal construction of authority in the field of rhetoric. The same goes for legitimacy: not only does the leader need to manifest it in the accredited institutional forms; for her legitimacy to be recognized, she needs to show that she respects public welfare and the community’s values, in this case democratic values.

2.2. Legitimacy in times of crisis

10Legitimation is linked to institutional practices and the justification of the institutional order (Berger & Luckmann 1966: 111, van Leeuwen 2007: 92). But what happens to institutional legitimacy in times of crisis? We define a state of crisis as a situation where “policy makers experience a serious threat to the basic structures or the fundamental values and norms of a system, which under time pressure and highly uncertain circumstances necessitates making vital decisions” (Rosenthal et al. 1989: 10, see also Boin et al. 2017: 5). In a democratic setting, the right to life, the right to freedom of movement and the right to social interaction are fundamental values ​​threatened during the Covid-19 crisis and the measures that accompany it. It is therefore not surprising that, for Boin et al. (3), crises fatally undermine the legitimized measures perceived as opposed to democratic values.

11In crisis communication, one of the duties of political leaders is to calm people down and reinspire confidence in the system at a time of collective stress (ibid.). The leader must communicate clearly in a situation of an acute lack of information and uncertainty. One way to do this is through meaning making—offering citizens a framework for the situation, a convincing, effective, and inspiring “persuasive message” (ibid.: 15, 80). This message should be factually correct, offer actionable advice, show empathy, and inspire trust.

12All of this takes place in the context of the “cacophony of voices” (ibid.: 18) that is the public space today, with traditional and new media offering their own vision and interpretation in real time of the situation and what needs to be done. The political leader must compete with this polyphony for the framing of the situation if she wants to be heard and followed in these moments of crisis (ibid.: 79-80); she cannot rely on her pre-crisis credibility. To maintain her legitimacy with the public, she must provide an interpretive framework for the crisis during a limited and precise window of time, before other voices in the public space take over the legitimate narrative (ibid.).

13Legitimacy construction in discourse is therefore part of the persuasive, convincing and inspiring message that the political leader must give in the event of a crisis, but it also plays a role in the reinforcement of her authority which, in this situation, is injured. From a crisis communication perspective, the communication of the political leader must include not only the message or the narrative that she wants to convey, but also the performance of this communication: this involves verbal communication such as tone and language, non-verbal communication such as posture, body language and facial expression, visual communication such as broadcast images, and context such as staging and timing. We analyze these discursive and performative aspects of Wilmès’ communication in her speeches broadcasted on official channels and on YouTube, as well as in their discursive and visual coverage in the following national and regional Belgian daily newspapers from March 12 to 31: De Morgen, De Standaard (De S.), Gazet van Antwerpen, Het Laatste Nieuws, La Derniere Heure-Les Sports (He. S.), La Libre Belgique, and Le Soir.

3. An ethos of unity: “l’union fait la force”

  • 7 We differentiate between prior ethos and discursive ethos (Amossy 1999). Prior ethos is the image t (...)

14Wilmès constructs her personal ethos7 as rational, pragmatic and centered around cooperation; she also constructs a collective ethos of unity, which is displayed at four levels: (1) at the federal level, through cooperation between the different communities and regions, (2) at the crisis management level, through the display of trust and collaboration among politicians and experts, (3) between Wilmès and the Belgian population, through the expression of empathy, and (4) among the people, through the call for solidarity.

3.1. Unity at the federal level: reinforcing legitimacy

15We have seen how the Belgian motto, Unity makes strength, conceals a reality marked by political, linguistic, and cultural division. The health crisis, however, requires measures at the federal (or national) level, something uncommon in the federal polity that is Belgium. In neighboring Germany, also a federal state, albeit with less internal diversity, Angela Merkel has been Chancellor for 15 years, while Sophie Wilmès is yet unknow by the public at that stage. She thus strengthens her fragile legitimacy by constructing the image of a united federal government and a well-knit management team, on the discursive as well as the visual level. She makes her press briefings right after coming out of meetings with the National Security Council, demonstrating transparency, presenting herself as merely transmitting and communicating what has just been discussed and debated as a team.

16This image of unity also appears in her performance: Wilmès delivers her speech seated at the center of a long table and surrounded by the members of the National Security Council. She explicitly indicates this in speech II:

It should be borne in mind that the decisions are the result of an agreement between all the entities of the country within the National Security Council. A strong collaboration has developed between us […] and as you can see [indicates those present at the table], we are here representing the federal government, federated entities, regions, and communities (Wilmès 2020b).

  • 8 “Compromis à la belge”, Het Laatste Nieuws, 13 March 2020 ; De S. 2020
  • 9 See (accessed March 10th, 2022). For an analysis of Macron’s personal (...)

17Sophie Wilmès shows herself as member of a team, not only through her spatial positioning, but also through her speech and in her gestures: she indicates her colleagues with her hand when she says “as you can see,” thus forcing the camera to zoom out to show all the team members. This visual representation of the Belgian team around a table is published the next day in the newspapers,8 which further contributes to the construction of a unified collective ethos for the government. This image is completely opposite to what is happening in neighboring France, where Emmanuel Macron who, as President of the Republic, concentrates symbolic and political power in his person, delivers his speeches alone, at the Elysée Palace, filmed in closeup.9

  • 10 Conservative and separatist Flemish party, promoting an independent Flanders.

18A further example of the ethos of union and compromise built into the performance comes from speech I: the PM is flanked, on both sides, by two mutually antagonistic Prime-Ministers: the representative of the Walloon Region, Elio di Rupo (Socialist Party), and the representative of the Flemish Region, Jan Jambon (N-VA10). The two clashed, in the preceding meeting, over the crucial issue of school closures. Di Rupo, taking France as a model, with President Macron announcing, during that very meeting, on the 8 o’clock French evening news, the closing of schools, endorsed it, while Jambon opposed it. After four hours of debate and counsel, leading to the postponement of the media briefing by more than two hours, a consensus was reached. The classes would be suspended, but the schools would be kept open to function as daycare centers for parents who were essential workers and couldn’t find someone to care for their children. The PM’s positioning at the center, surrounded by members of the government with opposed attitudes, conveys a strong message of unity. Tension is nevertheless indicated when she announces the measures concerning the schools by adding: “this is how it will go, this is what we want, that’s the decision we have taken,” while looking at Jan Jambon, who was opposed to suspending classes, out of the corner of her eye.

19Kept waiting for hours for the PM’s briefing while watching Macron delivering his 8 o’clock news speech on French outlets, some journalists see in the exceptional length of the CNS’s meeting a sign of governmental disagreement and internal conflict. For example, the next morning, the editorial of the conservative-Catholic newspaper La Libre Belgique criticizes the Belgian government’s lack of unity, vagueness, and indecisiveness, compared to Macron’s “clear, precise, and polished” message (Demonty 2020). According to the editorialist, the National Security Council “encountered the greatest difficulty in defining measures for the whole country. The North and the South do not have the same reading of the events: it’s the crisis within the crisis” (Van de Woestyne 2020).

20There is, however, also a positive reception of the image of unity that Wilmès intends to project, especially after her second speech of March 17 and the establishment of the new government invested with special powers to manage the crisis at the federal level. For instance, the expression compromis à la belge appears, in French, on March 13 and March 18 in the Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, the best-selling newspaper in Belgium (about 300,000). The Walloon paper La Dernier Heure–Les Sports writes, following speech II: “For the first time in ages, the country gives an image of unity” (Marneffe 2020), immediately quoting a colleague of Wilmès’ saying “She constantly seeks consensus, never breaks the dialogue.” According to the editorial of the most French-read, liberal, Brussels-based newspaper Le Soir, Wilmès in her second speech “announced clear, framed decisions, and presented an image of unity” (Delvaux 2020). Even the editorial staff of Gazet Van Antwerpen, a conservative, Catholic Antwerp regional newspaper coming from the opposite political camp of the PM’s, writes that the government, acting in unity, has chosen “the path of common sense” and the “middle rule” (Hendrikx 2020). It appears that in this first moment of the crisis, characterized in crisis studies as a time window where everyone “rallies round the flag” (Boin et al. 2017: 86), the media rallies behind the Wilmès government responsible for managing the crisis.

21Unity, for Wilmès, doesn’t mean lack of different views and opinions. In an interview published in the weekend edition of La Libre Belgique following her first speech, the journalists explicitly raise the question of the disagreement surrounding the closure of schools. To the question “Are the Flemish and the French-speakers opposed about suspending classes?” Wilmès responds by reformulating “opposition” as “discussions,” bringing the practice of discussion and disagreement back to the positive values ​​of democracy (Amossy 2014: 13):

Have there been discussions about schools? Of course. Have there been discussions about Horeca [hotels, restaurants, cafés]? Of course. Have there been discussions about the respect for freedoms? Of course. But what matters in the end is that we can present measures together, with everyone’s agreement (Chardon & Gérard 2020: 5).

22Wilmès emphasizes the collective dimension of the decision-making process, highlighting the collective aspect of legitimacy.

3.2. Expert authority: collegiality

23Like many other political leaders, Wilmès also highlights the government’s collaboration with virological experts, noting that “the decisions are motivated by the excellent work provided by our scientists and our medical experts and pay close attention to the situation here, but also abroad” (Wilmès 2020b). In the interview mentioned above, Wilmès again emphasizes her confidence in the experts, to whom she refers as “scientific experts of great renown, who know their job and who have demonstrated since the beginning of the crisis that it was not in their nature neither to exaggerate the situation nor to minimize it” (Chardon & Gérard 2020: 4). Their scientific authority is indicated by their designation composed of the name “experts”, the adjective “scientist”, and the adverbial group “of great renown,” and beyond their reputation, the evocation of their professional experience: they “know their job” and have “demonstrated” it. She thus legitimizes the strong measures demanded of the public by appealing to the authority of these experts: “When you work with this type of group, it gives you the conviction that, if they ask you to take strong measures, such as obstacles to freedom, one must do it. I am serene […]” (ibid.).

24Here too, the journalists raise the question of dissensus and disagreement, now within the expert community. Wilmès responds again by emphasizing the strength of the collective and the positive value of dissonance and debate when they’re accompanied by respect and collegiality. Dissonance “is part of democracy,” and as such, is not negative nor does it undermine expert authority:You’ll always find experts with different opinions. That is why we rely on the opinion of a group of scientists who, collegially, will propose a series of measures. […] the dissonant voices on the social networks, they’re part of democracy” (ibid.).

  • 11 On experts’ relying on the wider expert community for building an ethos of trust and credibility du (...)

25The experts’ collegiality is presented as opposed to the “dissonant voices” on social media, constructing a more united image at the decision-making level. This image is picked up by Le Soir, which qualifies the measures dictated on March 18 (speech II) as a “collegial decision11 […] ‘motivated by the work of scientists and medial experts’” (Ponciau 2020). Le Soir further quotes a researcher from UC Louvain, Annalisa Casini, for whom Wilmès’ political behavior is in “dialogue and negotiation rather than opposition. She’s a consensus-seeker, and profiles herself as a follower of the experts’ recommendations, which further reinforces her aura” (“A listener, a diplomat, but don’t step on her toes,” Le Soir, March 21, 2020).

26Wilmès expects this same unity of the citizens. She does it in two ways: by constructing a relationship of solidarity, listening, and cooperation in her discourse and, on the other hand, a feeling of solidarity between the citizens.

3.3. Union between Wilmès and the people: Constructing an ethos of empathy

27Wilmès builds a relationship of union not only between the decision-makers, but also between herself and the people. Take speech II as an example. Wilmès first thanks the journalists for their patience to wait before entering the press room: “First of all, I would like to thank the journalists present here for their understanding... We had to limit entry to the press room, to follow the instructions as best as possible, of course” (Wilmès 2020b). She thus shows that she perceives their discomfort and, at the same time, that she does not exempt herself from the distancing rules: she sets an example and puts herself on the same level as everyone else. She then expresses empathy towards the citizens in the face of the measures enforced since Friday and thanks them for their efforts. It is only after having established these relations that Wilmès announces the strengthening of the measures. It ends with a renewal of demonstrations of empathy and recognition towards the public and the nursing staff.

28Empathy, writes Gérard Jorland (2004: 20), consists in “putting oneself in someone else’s place without necessarily feeling their emotions” and constitutes the foundation of ethics and our relationship with others. On the linguistic level, says Alain Rabatel (2013), the speaker does not express his emotions directly: he imputes them to the other—the one with whom he feels empathy—and considers things from his point of view. He thus lends his voice to another and considers a situation in his place. Accordingly, after the announcement of new measures or the extension of old ones, Wilmès shows that she sees the citizens, her imagined interlocutors, in their distress, and that she recognizes the difficulty of the measures she imposes. She uses the personal pronoun in the first person singular (“I know,” “I am aware,” “I see”) and thus further strengthens the link she seeks to establish between herself and the people. The following illustrations are all taken from speech II:

29“I am aware that the decisions I have just listed are very difficult.”

30“I am fully aware of the effort that is required of you and I measure its difficulty.”

31“I know it is very difficult.” (Wilmès 2020b)

  • 12 « À l’écoute, diplomate, mais ne lui marchez pas sur les pieds », Le Soir, 21 March 2020.

32This attitude is noticed by a journalist from Le Soir, who sees it as an effective crisis communication strategy, according to which “one must first be educational and empathetic before being repressive” (Bourton 2020). In the crisis management literature, empathy is indeed recommended at the initial stage (Kuipers & ‘t Hart 2014: 593-595, Reynolds & Seeger 2005, Seeger et al. 2020: 402, 406). Whether this is a strategic or personal choice by Wilmès, the press, in any case, takes note of her empathy, and it becomes therefore part of her image. Thus, Le Soir reports that “the people working with her confirm the PM’s desire to emphasize empathy in her speeches. Each time, she is personally involved in the writing and does not hesitate to pause from what’s written and share her feelings.” 12La Libre Belgique also remarks, in a profile article, that “the authority of the current tenant of ‘16’ [Wilmès] is tinged with empathy. […] A follower of soft power, this gentle way of convincing, she wants to embrace Belgian citizens, show them that they’re not alone” (Chardon 2020).

33Wilmès presents herself as a listener of her fellow citizens: the rules are not rigid. This demonstrates a reasonable, non-authoritarian attitude, meeting the needs of the people. When she announces the closure of schools, for instance, she points out that a special option has been worked out for working parents who do not have a childcare solution for their younger children, given that grandparents cannot help, since they are at risk of contracting the virus: the schools will function as daycare centers for these children.

Classes are suspended. A framework for children will be provided at least [emphasized] for parents who are healthcare workers, who do not have a solution for the care of their children other than by elderly people. […] And when I say “at least”, it means that it is not a rigid rule, but instead we want to make sure that […] parents who find themselves in difficulty will be met in their difficulty (Wilmès 2020a).

34The parents’ “difficulty” is thus recognized, and they will be “met in their difficulty”. The flexibility of the rule is underlined in the meta-discourse: “when I say ‘at least,’ it means that it is not a rigid rule.” This reflexivity in discourse, this flexibility and this recognition of different individual situations constructs the image of someone who listens and who sees her fellow citizens in their distress.

3.4. Unity among the people: justifying the measures by calling for solidarity

35Sophie Wilmès builds her audience as a united people in several ways.

36She explicitly calls for solidarity at the end of her speeches. Thus, in speech I, she appeals to “our spirit of cohesion and our solidarity;” in speech II, she calls for “mutual help vis-à-vis our families, our friends and loved ones,” and ends each speech with “Take care of yourself, take care of others.” This sentence was immediately taken up by the media, for example in a note from Le Soir’s head editor informing the readers that the editorial staff began working from home: he ends his note with “take good care of yourself and your loved ones” (Berti 2020).

37Sophie Wilmès also constructs her audience as supportive by highlighting the work of its members for the collective, through the expression of gratitude. It is also a way to build a link with citizens, by recognizing everyone in his effort:

I would like to thank the nursing staff […] thousands of men and women are worried [because of the lack of masks], are stressed, are tired, but despite all this, they continue to treat patients, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

I also salute all the people who make this country work daily. […] Whether you are a bus driver, a police officer, […] an employee in a food store or a security worker […] your role is essential in our society, and we also thank you for your work (Wilmès 2020c).

38The use of the first person singular (“I want to thank,” “I greet”) establishes a personal link between Wilmès and the people, while the use of the first persona plural (“we thank you”), in the second excerpt, draws attention to the collective and united aspect of their effort (“your role is essential in our society.”) She also calls on the media: “I also encourage the media […] to help limit the spread of the virus” (Wilmès 2020a), and thus includes them in the collective effort.

4. Rationalism and pragmatism

4.1. Avoidance of war rhetoric

39The arguments put forward by Wilmès to justify the measures are mainly of a rational and pragmatic nature. She does not appeal to emotions: neither to fear, nor to analogies with the 2015 terror attacks, nor to war metaphors, although the latter are solicited in political and media discourse around the world in the context of the coronavirus crisis (Benziman 2020, Castro Seixas 2021, Dada et al. 2021, Musolff 2022, Wodak 2021). This avoidance is immediately noticed and commented on in the media. Thus, Le Soir reports:

During her press conference announcing the reinforced measures to fight against the coronavirus, the Prime Minister never uttered the words lockdown or confinement. […] There remains a third term carefully avoided. The word war, used extensively by Emmanuel Macron in his speech. The Prime Minister, we are told, […] wanted to avoid it. “She felt it was not appropriate. She felt that the population didn’t need to feel even more attacked. She wanted to work in a more reassuring, empathetic register,” we are told from a good source (Demonty 2020).

40Wilmès’ rational argumentation and register can be due to three factors who can intersect:

41(1) Personal style: The press reports the avoidance of war rhetoric as Wilmès’ personal choice (Demonty 2020) and speaks of a “Wilmès style,” often in comparison with Macron:

The coronavirus crisis has brought to light a Wilmès style, a way of exercising power. Emmanuel Macron speaks of war in a solemn address, the Belgian Prime Minister voluntarily adopts an educational, benevolent, reasonable tone (Chardon 2020).

She’s not in the register of guilt or of the bellicose vocabulary of an Emmanuel Macron for example (“A listener, a diplomat, but don’t step on her toes,” Le Soir, March 21, 2020).

  • 13 See Baider & Constantinou (2022) for an interesting case-study involving the intersectionality of p (...)

42(2) Gendered political rhetoric: The numerous a contrario comparisons with Macron (see also He. S. 2020) also invite a gendered look at the avoidance of the war register.13 A profile article in La Libre Belgique interprets her political style as feminine: the article begins by comparing her to Margaret Thatcher, quoting the latter, who said: “In politics, if you want speeches, ask a man. If you want actions, ask a woman.” This formula, says the journalist, would suit Wilmès perfectly, as she “does not like slogans that hurt, nor ideology that constrains” (Chardon 2020). The journalist continues: “She has a real feminine touch,” reminding readers that “[t]he head of the federal government is also the mother of three children” (ibid.). This journalistic coverage therefore interprets her style of political communication as feminine (see also De Maet 2020).

43Research by Dada et al. (2021) on a corpus from the same period (March 2020) and composed of heads of state political speeches on Covid-19 from the perspective of gender, shows that there exists, in fact, a “female politician’s discourse” on the coronavirus. This analysis of 122 political speeches by ten female and ten male political leaders linked to the Covid-19 measures, with 61 speeches for each group, concludes that the women resorted significantly less to the rhetoric of war, focusing rather on citizens’ everyday experience. The article in this issue on Angela Merkel (Siess & Amossy 2022) also shows how much Merkel highlighted the human element, emphasizing the daily difficulties and including herself among her fellow citizens.

44(3) Local political culture: Belgian political culture is marked by pragmatism and rationalism (Vandermotten 2020: 121). For example, in the field of crisis communication pragmatics, Wagener (2018) compared the post-terror attack discourse of French and Belgian leaders in 2015 and 2016, and noticed that the Belgian executive’s discourse, in comparison with his French neighbor, was devoid of patriotic or warlike rhetoric, and instead focused on the community and the victims. One could cautiously envision a political culture of crisis communication centered on pragmatism and compromise rather than meta-narratives.

4.2. The phases: towards a rational programming

45One of the ways of maintaining calm is to show that everything is going according to a pre-established plan. Wilmès presents the crisis as being “under control,” when a crisis, by definition, is chaotic, unpredictable, and worrying. Each time, she notes at which anticipated stage the crisis is, according to the “phases” planned by the Crisis Center, and how the new measures correspond to it according to a rational action plan.

We remain, at the sanitary level, in phase 2. Phase 2 […] is indeed the phase where we try to contain the spread and multiplication of the virus in our country. […]

While some may question the relevance of the measures taken a few days ago, […] well, I think it demonstrates that we fit perfectly into the dynamic that we have established, which is to monitor the situation in real time and immediately take the necessary, effective, and proportionate responses when the time comes (Wilmès 2020a).

46“We fit perfectly into the dynamic that we have established” seeks to counter the lack of control and the loss of bearings caused by the pandemic and the distancing measures, which upset daily life and essential democratic values. Moreover, the incessant changes of the measures thus do not present themselves as a sign of chaos, lack of planning or failure of leadership but, on the contrary, as a rational, pragmatic, and effective attitude which closely monitors the situation and manages it in real time. The adjectives “necessary, effective, and proportionate” are markers of a rational and pragmatic speech.

4.3. Pragmatic arguments

47Wilmès most often resorts to pragmatic argumentation, that is, argumentation based on the favorable or unfavorable consequences of certain actions or rules. Rather than being driven by great principles, such as Macron, she sticks to field data, figures, and the citizen’s daily reality, while remaining down-to-earth.

  • 14 Two weeks after posting a video on her Facebook page specifically addressing the youth, on March 15 (...)

48When she specifically addresses young people,14 for example, who organize illegal parties and become infected as a result, she resorts to a pragmatic argument, according to which “reality” shows that young people are also affected by the disease. This argument is presented as a counterargument to the “invincible youth” narrative: “[T]he lockdown parties […] have significant health consequences […] When you are young, you feel invincible, but today, in intensive care, you have young people, too. It is a reality […] (Wilmès 2020c).

49Or, when addressing seniors, she gives them practical advice for everyday life:

We have elderly people who are alone at home, and we advise them, we insist that they stay at home. And if they have to run errands, if they really must run errands, they should please try to do it at a time of day when there are few people (Wilmès 2020a).

50Wilmès remains down-to-earth, she wants to make sure that her message will be well understood. She justifies and explains the measures, translating them into real, everyday situations:[I]want to clarify that the objective is to stay in motion and not to stay, for example, in parks for hours on end. […] It is therefore not ok, either, to go, for example, to the Ardennes or the coast for the day” (Wilmès 2020c).

5. Constructing the audience as a mirror of the speaker’s ethos

5.1. Constructing a heterogeneous audience

51We have seen how Wilmès built a united audience through an ethos of unity. But, at the same time, Wilmès also builds a heterogeneous audience. Seeger et al. (2020: 409) note that, for crisis communication to be effective, one must take contextual factors, linked to the audience’s heterogeneity, into account. Wilmès constructs a heterogeneous audience in several ways. We have seen supra how she addresses different sections of the population in her discourse: young parents (section 3.3.), essential workers (section 3.4.), the elderly, and youth (section 4.3.).

52Another dimension of the heterogeneous audience built through Wilmès’ discourse is their rationality and ability to understand what is expected of them. On the one hand, the exclusive use of rational arguments supposes an audience made up of responsible individuals capable of judgement. On the other hand, her constant reminders and sometimes excessive explanations suggest a somewhat infantilized audience: it is this heterogeneity that we will analyze in the section that follows.

5.2. A rational audience

53As the effective stopping and controlling of the spread of the virus ultimately depends on civic behavior and cooperation, it is more effective to inform and educate citizens about the scope of their actions than to control their behavior with fines. That is why Wilmès appeals to everyone’s individual responsibility:

[W]e must show […] our ability to take responsibility […].

In this situation, I appeal to everyone’s vigilance and responsibility […], each and every one on their own level […] – and I also encourage you, the media, to do so as soon as you can – I encourage you to help limit the spread of the virus […] (Wilmès 2020a).

I want to address the Belgian population. Each and every one of you. I want to thank you, you, who participate in your own way in the Belgian collective and national effort. You, who respect the measures which have been taken to protect you and your loved ones. The success of our fight against Covid-19 is irremediably linked to the personal effort of each and every one of us […].

“I know that you are not lacking in voluntarism and courage. I see it every day” (Wilmès 2020b).

54This emphasis on individual responsibility, one’s “personal effort”, construct, like the rational arguments deployed analyzed supra, an audience capable of reasoning and taking individual responsibility.

5.3. A childlike audience

55Although the call for vigilance and cooperation through rational arguments builds the image of a responsible audience capable of carrying out what is expected of them, Wilmès also adopts an educational tone, marked by connectors like “therefore”, explanatory adverbs like “indeed”, or verbs like “specify”, “explain”, or “remind”:

  • 15 What will later be called “social bubbles.”

The objective of these measures is to prevent people who have no reason to enter in contact with each other from doing so, and therefore to prevent the virus from spreading between so-called social communities15 (Wilmès 2020a).

56When she announces that the schools will welcome the children of essential workers, she explains: “I remind you that the group at significant risk is the elderly. The idea is not for these children to be looked after by their grandparents” (ibid.). She continues:

Obviously, that’s not the goal. […] you will remember that the objective is as follows: on the one hand, to slow down the spread of the virus to allow our care services to absorb [underlines this word with an exaggerated pronunciation and gesture] the need for healthcare. We thus really need all the available staff (ibid.).

57The pedagogical tone, marked by explanation and repetition (“I remind you that,” “you will “remember that”) and modifiers like “obviously,” “really” can easily slip into a paternalistic tone. As she says in her first speech (ibid.):

Phase two, as we have already explained to you several times, is indeed the phase where […]

I’ve said it before, it can’t be repeated enough – […] I encourage you to help limit the spread of the virus by respecting simple rules [underlines “simple” with a wave of the hand] by matters of personal hygiene, for example.

58This tone, which can slip into paternalism, builds an audience that only understands a message through repetition and explanation. The media interprets it positively as a maternal trait. Wilmès is quoted in an interview as explaining the coronavirus to the Belgian population as she would to her own children: “She has chosen to explain the measures clearly, as she would by talking to her daughters” (Marneffe 2020). Another article describes Wilmès as “Mother of the nation” (De Maet 2020), addressing Belgians in an “almost maternal, rigorous but benevolent tone,” in a “firm but soft voice,” “far from an Emmanuel Macron repeating ’we are at war’.”


59This article shows that, unlike Macron or Merkel, who enjoy a prior ethos of authority with their audiences, Wilmès does not resort to any charisma, grand narratives, or ideologies, but maintains a register of pragmatic realism, corresponding to Belgian political culture. The analysis indeed shows that the PM avoids all pathos; instead, she uses rational and pragmatic arguments and remains centered on the daily life of the citizens.

60Faced with the Belgian political reality of a North/South division (corresponding to the Dutch- and the French-speaking community, respectively), Wilmès nevertheless appeals to a collective ethos of unity at several levels: (1) the federal level, between the different communities and regions, (2) the decision-making level, through the relationship between politicians and experts, (3) the vertical level of the relationship between herself and the population, through the expression of empathy, and (4) the population level, through the call for solidarity.

61Wilmès compensates for her initial lack of legitimacy by displaying a united and tightly knit governmental body, beyond the few dissensions that are presented as legitimate democratic deliberation, and by constructing herself as the representative of a people that she understands and to whom she shows empathy. This recourse to empathy brings Wilmès closer to Angela Merkel, and the possibility of a gendered political discourse of the coronavirus and of crisis in general has been considered. Wilmès builds her own authority and that of the health measures through rational arguments, particularly pragmatic arguments, and grounds them in the shared value of solidarity. She thus builds the ethos of a reasonable, wise, and ethically conscious leader. The recourse to fear by the metaphor of war or by the analogy with terrorism is carefully avoided. This sets Wilmès apart from Emmanuel Macron and is perhaps due to Belgian culture, which favors pragmatic realism at the expense of ideologies and grand narratives.

62Wilmès builds, through her discursive strategies, a heterogeneous audience: on the one hand united, but divided into different social groups, on the other hand, composed of responsible individuals, endowed with reason and judgment, but also requiring an educational tone, characterized by repetitions, explanations, and illustrations. Her authority is thus based on the image of a “mother of the nation”.

63The media cover Wilmès’ speeches positively at this stage of the pandemic, underlining her taste for consensus, compromise, and dialogue: the PM therefore manages to successfully build a collective ethos of unity, at least such as the media perceive and reproduce it. Her pedagogical tone is interpreted as maternal, empathetic, and benevolent, in contrast to Macron’s distanced, paternal, and belligerent speech.

64Finally, we considered and proposed the Belgian political culture as a plausible condition for the construction of a collective authority in the face of the crisis, as well as of a collective ethos of unity and the maintenance of a pragmatic realism in the argumentative strategy.

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1 A majority government couldn’t be formed since December 2018 because of the ideological cleavage between Flanders and Wallonia and the weakening of the major traditional parties (Faniel & Sägesser 2020: 8).

2 Comparable to the German Länder or the American states.

3 Van de Woestyne (2020)

4 Fédéral et Régions resserrent les rangs, La Libre Belgique, 3 March 2020

5 Antwerp’s mayor Bart de Wever refused, for instance, to follow these federal-level recommendations (Fanier & Sägesser 2002: 15).

6 The CNS comprises the relevant ministers at the federal level (Heath, Education, and Interior) and the Prime-Ministers of the regions and communities. They are advised by the Federal Committee of Experts, which includes the Celeval (abbreviation of “evaluation cell”).

7 We differentiate between prior ethos and discursive ethos (Amossy 1999). Prior ethos is the image that the audience has of the speaker before his or her speech, while discursive ethos is the image that the speaker projects through her speech.

8 “Compromis à la belge”, Het Laatste Nieuws, 13 March 2020 ; De S. 2020

9 See (accessed March 10th, 2022). For an analysis of Macron’s personal authority construction, see Sadoun-Kerber & Wahnich (2022) in this volume.

10 Conservative and separatist Flemish party, promoting an independent Flanders.

11 On experts’ relying on the wider expert community for building an ethos of trust and credibility during the Covid-19 pandemic, see Kjeldsen et al. (2022).

12 « À l’écoute, diplomate, mais ne lui marchez pas sur les pieds », Le Soir, 21 March 2020.

13 See Baider & Constantinou (2022) for an interesting case-study involving the intersectionality of personal style, gender, and political background in political leaders’ use of metaphors framing the pandemic.

14 Two weeks after posting a video on her Facebook page specifically addressing the youth, on March 15, 2020:

15 What will later be called “social bubbles.”

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Référence électronique

Irit Kornblit, « Rhetorical strategies of legitimacy and authority in times of Covid-19: The case of Belgian PM Wilmès »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 28 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 avril 2022, consulté le 21 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Irit Kornblit

Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Kulturwissenschaftliche Institut Essen

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