Mayor of Belgian town at centre of attacks: “I don’t feel threatened”

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Molenbeek in the west of Brussels has long been seen as a terrorist hub. Now after the Paris attacks police raids are being stepped up in this densely populated municipality dominated by immigrants.

Their sirens howling, Brussels police cordon off the Rue Delaunoy in Molenbeek with white-and-blue tape. A calm and clear announcement sounds out over the loudspeaker: “There is no way through.”

Here in the west of the Belgian capital the search for the Paris killers continues. At least one arrest is made during a house search in Molenbeek, but the man detained is not Salah Abdeslam, the brother of the suicide attackers in Paris.

At midday the municipal work team gathers on the square in front of the town hall to hold a hastily organized minute of silence for the victims. Municipal cleaners in their orange vests line the edge of the square as the Belgian black, yellow and red tricolour flutters at half-mast.

Mayor Francoise Schepmans is wrapped in a scarf in the brisk breeze. She stands upright with her blonde hair and black leather coat to insist that she will carry on serving her local authority, despite its many problems.

“I don’t feel threatened in my community,” she says without a moment’s hesitation “This is my home. I’ve lived here for 50 years.”

But there are many questions following the numerous arrests in Molenbeek since the Paris terrorist attacks with its 129 deaths and more than 350 injured. A modest white building with the number 30 lies within view where there was a police raid last Saturday.

The 55-year-old mayor speaks plainly of young people on the margins of society. Whereas they were once petty criminals, now they have been radicalized, she says. “Social cohesion has collapsed in certain streets,” she says.

People on the wind-swept square insist that radical Islamism affects only a small minority. The aim of most of the residents of densely populated Molenbeek-Saint-Jean – a municipality with a population of around 95,000 – is to integrate and get on with their lives.

Bashir is outraged. “Belgium has given me everything that I have,” the 39-year-old Moroccan says, insisting that anyone coming into the country has to stick to the rules. And parents should look after their children, he says.

Bashir has left Molenbeek behind to move out with his family to the Flanders region around Brussels, where his children have to speak Dutch at school – not easy, given that they have grown up with French.

“But I’m not letting them grow up here,” the father says.

Bashir is following the line of Interior Minister Jan Jambon, who believes a clean-up is needed in Molenbeek, although precisely what he has in mind remains unclear. The Belgian government plans to put forward a plan of action to assist Molenbeek.

Belgium not only has a security problem, but also an image problem, with the terrorist trail being traced back to Molenbeek.

Schepmans is in agreement with the line taken by liberal Prime Minister Charles Michel. “It’s a good thing. The municipality has no money. We need support,” she says.

Molenbeek and its problems have become trapped in the machinations of Belgium’s complicated domestic politics. Schepmans’ socialist predecessor Philippe Moureaux has come in for criticism, although he insists he can bear no blame for recent developments, having left office three years ago.

Moureaux stands accused of not having reacted to dangerous developments on his patch over his 20 years in office.

Residents of this “Jihadi Central” make small gestures to stand up for their quarter, wearing buttons with the legend 1080 – Molenbeek’s postal code.

In front of the town hall officials offer assistance to residents. Many are acquainted, kissing on the cheeks – something rare in the rest of Brussels.

“You would like to pay the rent for your council flat? Please go to the first floor,” a young father is told.

“The general routine works well in Molenbeek, but perhaps we’ve been fooling ourselves,” Schepmans muses.

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