The President of the Flemish Socialist party Vooruit, Conner Rousseau, has been heavily criticised for saying that he does not feel like he is in Belgium in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean.
In an interview with the Flemish Humo magazine, Rousseau said "When I drive through Molenbeek, I do not feel like I am in Belgium," which the magazine used as the title of the article.
Rousseau was discussing the French elections, in which Emmanuel Macron was re-elected as President of France but far-right candidate Marine Le Pen received more votes than ever before in the country.
When asked about his position on migration and to comment on the observation that many French people 'feel they no longer live in their own country', Rousseau said that he also does not feel like he is in Belgium when driving through Molenbeek. "But most of those people were born here. The most important thing is that they speak our language and work."
"In Brussels, because of the teacher shortage, there are people in the classroom teaching in Arabic because they do not speak French. Unacceptable," he added. "But what does the Flemish government do? Raise the price of language courses to shorten the waiting lists."
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Explaining his comments on Flemish radio on Tuesday morning, Rousseau said that Humo used "a fierce title to sell more print runs" for his interview, "which is what I wish for them." He added that while he and his team read the interview carefully, and approved it before print, he has no say in the title.
The full story behind his statement is that he advocates "an integrated social mix," Rousseau said. "Because if you are in a region where you almost only speak Arabic, or not enough of the region's official language, then you are not encouraging children to learn the official language."
This is especially problematic for the children themselves, he said. "You cannot excel at school or get all the opportunities in the job market if you do not speak the language."
In the meantime, the Mayor of Molenbeek, Catherine Moureaux, who is a party member of Vooruit's Francophone counterpart PS, reacted to Rousseau's comments with "anger and disgust," calling them "insulting."
"He has never come to Molenbeek. His remark is in line with the caricatures of the far-right, with which he insults 100,000 Molenbeek inhabitants," she said on Twitter, inviting him to visit the municipality with her.
"We have only just finished the painful debate about the extreme right in France and we see that these extreme right-wing ideas are gaining ground," Moureaux elaborated in De Morgen. "It is particularly damaging that the Flemish left is attacking Molenbeek and Brussels in this way, in the wake of the extreme right."
Rousseau's comments are "a form of racism" and "unworthy of a party leader," she said. "I fully support that you have to speak one of the country's languages to live together, but his reductionist view of my municipality hurts and feeds the far-right."
Additionally, Flemish Minister for Brussels Benjamin Dalle also reacted to the Humo interview, saying that Rousseau's statements are "not only beneath contempt, but also categorically false. Language courses and civic integration are free (!) in Brussels. And teaching in Arabic? He can take me to that school of the Flemish community."
Jef Van Damme, alderman for Vooruit in Molenbeek, called it a "very misplaced remark," saying that "Molenbeek is as much Belgium as Sint-Niklaas (where Rousseau lives) is. He can get out of the car next time if he drives through here. I will gladly show him around the year 2022."
Leader of the PS parliamentary group and chair of the Brussels PS federation Ahmed Laaouej, also called the statements "unacceptable, stigmatising and xenophobic," saying that "Brussels is a cosmopolitan region with neighbourhoods rich in diversity. It deserves better than disdain at the level of bar talk. Regrettable and unbearable."
Brussels Minister for Multilingualism Sven Gatz, too, condemned Rousseau's remarks. "Bashing Brussels, hitting out at Molenbeek: it is so transparent. And too easy."
According to Gatz, more adults than ever before are learning Dutch in Brussels today, and never before have so many children been in Dutch-speaking education. "That is a fact. More important than your stories."