Poverty and a lack of resources has emboldened far-right groups, writes Sorcha Ní Coileain in Brussels
Only a handful of people stop to gaze at the tribute to the Brussels bombing victims outside the city’s stock exchange at the Place de la Bourse.
The international press has decamped and the carpet of candlelit shrines that once decorated the pedestrianised avenue in front of the stock exchange has disappeared.
It was trampled by a troupe of football hooligans who interrupted a commemoration for the victims on Easter Sunday, taking police and security services by surprise.
Ten minutes’ walk away, on the other side of the canal, local authorities in the Molenbeek neighbourhood are gearing up to face a similar threat.
A France-based youth movement branding itself ‘Génération Identitaire’ (’Generation Identity’) had planned an anti-immigration protest this Saturday in Molenbeek’s main square, but local mayor Françoise Schepmans says that she is taking “no chances” and has banned the rally.
Extra police have been deployed to the area, and contingency plans are in place to shut down the nearby metro station if demonstrators attempt to defy the ban.
“I’m not worried, but I am vigilant and so I’m taking precautionary measures,” Ms Schepmans told the Irish Examiner yesterday. “The aim is to prevent protesters from the far right — and, I should add, the far left — from entering the area and disturbing the peace.”
A member of the French-speaking liberal Mouvement Réformateur (MR) party, Ms Schepmans says that the problem with last week’s disturbance at the Place de la Bourse was the lack of co-ordination between police and local authorities before the event.
It’s a familiar refrain in a country riven with divisions — cultural, linguistic, administrative, and political.
In Brussels, a city of just over 1m people, there are 19 municipal mayors, a regional Minister-President, and a dedicated parliament.
In Belgium, a country of just over 11m people in a territory smaller than the island of Ireland, there is a total of six governments to cater for the various regions and linguistic “communities” (French-, Dutch-, and German-speaking), which have been gradually acquiring more autonomy over the last 40 years.
The police, too, are split along national and local lines, with six independent police forces serving Brussels alone. A local petition to unify them has been gaining traction but local authorities say the problem is not the police but a lack of resources.
“Molenbeek is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Belgium and we don’t have the means to pay our police,” says Schepmans. “So we need help from the federal government to increase the number of police, but we also need help — because in Belgium, everything is complicated — from the regional and community level to pay for education, especially for young people.”
A municipality of just over 95,000 people, Molenbeek has gained notoriety for harbouring several suspects from last November’s Paris attacks — one of whom, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested in the area just days before the Brussels bombings.
Molenbeek’s reputation today is a far cry from its heyday, when it was known as ‘little Manchester’ because of the metal, textile, and other factories that flourished in the area during the industrial revolution.
But the masses of people that were brought in to work the factories and local mines — first rural Belgians, then Europeans, and later, after the Second World War, north Africans — were left jobless when deindustrialisation took hold, with youth unemployment now reaching 40% in some areas.
Attempts have been made to “clean up” the neighbourhood — former factories have been converted into museums, concert venues and cultural centres, while cafés and apartment buildings are appearing along the canal.
Following the Paris attacks, the federal government launched a €39m ‘Plan Canal’ to add more police, judges and anti-terror experts in the neighbourhoods bordering the waterway, including Molenbeek and Schaerbeek, where the Brussels bombers had their hideout.
Schepmans has launched her own anti-terror plan, creating a dedicated unit to help root out and dissuade foreign fighters. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to “rebuild” Molenbeek’s tattered reputation.
“There has been a lot of finger pointing when it comes to Molenbeek, especially in the direction of certain young people, but there is a real sadness here, and an anxiety,” Schepmans says.
Life is getting back to normal in Brussels less than two weeks after the attacks, though the airport has yet to resume flights, and armed guards continue to patrol metro and train stations, which are running a limited service.
Eighty people are still in hospital after the triple blast last week killed 32, as well as three named suicide bombers.
The internal and international blame game continues to play out, with Belgian politicians yesterday battling over the terms of a committee of inquiry into the atrocities.
“The attacks in Paris and Brussels were a real wake-up call,” Schepmans concludes. “We need to learn from this. The only thing to do is to get back up again.”
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