The Brussels district of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, known for its large Muslim population, is failing in terms of integration and does not feel like a part of Belgium, the president of Belgium’s social-democrat Vooruit (Progress) party has claimed.
Stirring up a debate usually reserved for the right, Conner Rousseau commented on the ethnic composition of the district in an interview with Humo, where he stated: “When I drive through Molenbeek, I don’t feel like I’m in Belgium.”
Questioned by the Flemish weekly on the place of migration in the debates which played a major role in the French elections, the president of Vooruit described the municipality of Brussels as falling short of efforts to assimilate, and described Molenbeek as a place “where most people were born here” but who would experience serious linguistic difficulties.
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“In Brussels, due to the shortage of teachers, there are people who teach in Arabic because they don’t speak French. This is unacceptable,” Rousseau said. “And what is the Flemish government doing? It increases the cost of language courses to reduce waiting lists.”
Rousseau maintained his position on Tuesday morning while on Radio 1, saying that in some regions, almost only Arabic is spoken and that children are therefore not encouraged to learn Dutch or French, which jeopardizes their chances at school and for the job market.
His comments served as the equivalent of a bomb going off for the Belgium left. The head of the Socialist Party’s parliamentary group, Ahmed Laaouej, was the first to reply, denouncing Rousseau’s words as “intolerable, stigmatizing and xenophobic. Brussels is a cosmopolitan region with neighborhoods experiencing a great diversity of population. They deserve better than a contempt worthy of a pub discussion. Lamentable and unbearable.”
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Mayor Catherine Moureaux described Rousseau’s attitude towards the municipality as “caricatural” and “contemptuous.” Several left-wing federal ministers also condemned his remarks and even some members of his own party have stepped up to criticize their leader, in particular the Molenbeek alderman Jef Van Damme. The Flemish nationalist right praised the young socialist and the Flemish far-right also defended Rousseau.
Molenbeek is the Brussels district with the highest ratio of foreign nationals, with as much as 40 percent of the population being Muslim. With youth unemployment also running at 40 percent in the district, it is often called the “poor croissant” of Brussels.