|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||05/10/95, Volume 1, Number 03|
IS there a link between an under-reported riot in Brussels' smallest municipality and France's anti-terrorist campaign? There may be more there than first meets the eye.
French President Jacques Chirac sparked an outcry in Belgian official circles when he announced France's decision to toughen its border controls early last month. His visit to customs officers on the French-Belgian border raised tempers in Brussels, where the French attitude was seen as a direct indictment of how Belgium polices its external borders.
Belgian Interior Minister Van de Lanotte reacted angrily, describing the French attitude as “hypocritical” and insisting the real French problem was the inability of its police to control the banlieues, those sprawling neighbourhoods where most lower-income foreigners congregate in drab high-rise housing.
France's 'opt-out' from the Schengen agreement on open borders is linked to its fight against terrorism and in the past months, as France reeled under a succession of bomb attacks, Belgium has been consistently described in Paris as a sanctuary for Islamic fundamentalists. When it was announced that the bomb detonated in the Saint-Michel metro station in Paris had been traced to Belgium, the French police and media soon spoke of a “Belgian-Islamist connection”.
Who would dare contradict them? Last March a group of alleged Islamic fundamentalists were arrested by Belgian police in Brussels and charged with working for the most extremist Algerian group, the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé). Caches of weapons and explosives were discovered during the police raids.
However, the trial, which opened in early September amid high security, should not be seen as a spill-over from an issue that only involves France and its former colony.
Belgium is a sanctuary not only because it lies close to France and offers obvious logistical advantages, but also because its offers a favourable climate for recruitment and agitation among the most disaffected part of her foreign population.
Indeed, when it comes to the immigration issue, Belgium is not in the best position to give lessons to its southern neighbour. Belgian police are, like their French colleagues, increasingly unable to control the most rebellious segments of inner-city communities.
Since the Forest riots in 1991, Brussels has experienced sporadic clashes between the police and groups of youths, mainly of Moroccan origin.
On 13 September two policemen from Saint-Josse, one of the most destitute Brussels' municipalities where more than 50&percent; of the residents are foreigners, followed a suspected thief into his house in a narrow street located in a largely-Moroccan neighbourhood.
When they left, they were greeted by dozens of angry youths and forced to call for reinforcements. Later that night, some 200 youths fought with the police in front of the Saint-Josse police station.
A succession of similar incidents is clear evidence of the malaise in Brussels' inner city. Other indicators are the exodus of inhabitants away from Brussels into the 'ethnically pure' countryside, as well as the rise of the far right.
Even though it has not reached the same level as in Antwerp, where some 30&percent; of the vote went to the nationalist party Vlaams Blok, xenophobic feelings are rampant and the electoral potential of the extreme right worries most political observers.
Brussels is host to some 277,000 foreigners, 30&percent; of its population, half of whom come from EU countries. Ultra-nationalist parties openly take aim at Eurocrats, accusing them of wasting taxpayers' money and increasing the cost of living of ordinary Belgians.
But their real target is the Moroccan and Turkish populations who have settled in old central neighbourhoods such as Schaerbeek and Brussels and in dilapidated sections of industrial municipalities such as Anderlecht and Molenbeek.
Although most members of these communities are law-abiding and hard-working, a minority of disaffected youths are becoming increasingly assertive.
Turning their back on integration into mainstream society and dropping out of school, they dabble in illegal businesses and play the street toughies.
A culture of anger similar to that in American ghettos prevails, with its well-known traits of machismo, drug dealing and violence.
It is here that Islamic fundamentalists are proselytising and, according to police sources and some rather scaremongering press reports, recruiting accomplices for terrorist activities.
Belgian authorities have long acknowledged the danger of the situation. Money has been poured into neighbourhood projects, but action has not been forceful or focussed enough to succeed.
Most Brussels residents have been unaware of these ominous trends because the Belgian media has been particularly weak in reporting on migrant communities. The EU 'colony', which rarely follows the Belgian media, usually catches just a glimpse of these foreigners. Brussels is a divided city where rich and poor foreigners rarely meet.
Two of the few points of contact between the two worlds are the run-down section of the rue Stévin, a block away from the Berlaymont building, and the Chaussée de Louvain, which crosses Saint-Josse and Schaerbeek between Woluwe and the city centre.
When passing through, expats and Eurocrats may glance at the groups of young people drifting aimlessly.
Previously they might have imagined them engaged in petty crimes.
Now they will be more likely to imagine them taking part in sombre Islamist plots - and they might well agree with Chirac's suspension of the open borders agreement.
|Subject Categories||Internal Markets, Justice and Home Affairs|
|Countries / Regions||Belgium, France|