“I will be away from politics in Belgium for two or three months,” says Conner Rousseau in Amsterdam. “There are a huge number of wannabes who copy me. But people smell that that is not authentic. And they still don’t have my place packed.” The ex-chairman of Vooruit leaves this open about who he is talking about and where.
Rousseau – dark blue trousers, black T-shirt and sneakers – looks good. Fit. He is back on stage for the first time since his dismissal. He is speaking at a conference of the communications company of former VVD politician Klaas Dijkhoff, in the Amsterdam conference building. The room is smaller than the one where the East Flemish socialists announced on Tuesday evening that Freya Van den Bossche will draw the Flemish list of Vooruit. Here no one chants his name, here professionals come to listen to ‘behavior changers’ – people who devise strategies to adjust the behavior of the masses. A ticket costs just under 400 euros.
The standard is not the only Flemish press medium that has traveled to Amsterdam in search of an answer to the question: how is Conner Rousseau doing and what are the chances that he will soon become a list pusher? Those answers are not forthcoming: Rousseau does not want to give interviews, he does not even answer questions from the audience. After his explanation, he leaves the room faster than his shadow.
“Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight”, Rousseau begins his lecture. “You might as well say: don’t bring facts to a framework.” He is a guest at the conference as a “political pioneer” and “brilliant strategist”, but no word about his resignation or the reason for it. “Since he left politics, he also works as a communications strategist,” was the intro, before he stepped on stage to talk about how he has made the ‘left’ popular again against the grain over the past four years.
For almost 45 minutes he explains how he led Vooruit for four years. Facts always lose out to emotions, is his main point. He refers to the voting tests in 2019, in which the Socialists, according to Rousseau, consistently came second. “We became the sixth party out of seven in the elections. We were strong in terms of content, but you won’t reach anyone with content without a story.”
After those elections, Rousseau was elected party chairman and he started thinking about the contradiction between content and emotion. “I fell in love with the problem,” he explains. First he focused on who he wanted to reach better: young people and average working class people. He wasn’t too worried about the first group. He achieved that simply by being himself. “I was 26, the youngest party chairman ever. No one could say anymore that the Socialists are a party for old people.”
Around the average working class people To lure him back to his party, Rousseau decided to focus on one theme: the socio-economic. “We do not participate in the culturewar, not in the woke discussion.” He posed what he calls “the winning question.” “That is the one question people ask themselves during the elections. If you ask them: ‘Who will bully the foreigners the most?’, they will answer one party. If you ask them: ‘Who does the most for the climate?’, the answer is: GroenLinks.”
“Debora from the cash register”
To help the Socialists win an election in 2024, the question had to become “who will best protect my purchasing power?” For two years the party would talk about nothing else. “After two years we did our own research. This showed that we were the answer for young people to the question of who best protected their purchasing power.”
Rousseau learned from Donald Trump. “It doesn’t matter that Trump’s wall is impossible to build. That image of that wall says very clearly: that man is going to keep out people we don’t want here.” Rousseau also looked for such a wall for the theme of purchasing power. It became “Debora from the cash register”. Thanks to her, he was politically sold the purchasing power premium during the energy crisis.
The crux is focus and discipline, says Rousseau: talk about one theme and have the discipline not to talk about anything else. He demonstrates that principle perfectly in Amsterdam. In the 45 minutes that he speaks, the reason for his dismissal – his racist statements towards the Roma – remains completely out of the picture. He does address his statements about Molenbeek. He defends them, nuances them. “I am not saying that Molenbeek is not Belgium, I said that Molenbeek is not like Belgium feels.” And he claims that after those statements, Vooruit’s socio-economic plan has stuck with people.
Rousseau also maintains his focus in Amsterdam. His presidency, on the other hand, collapsed due to a loss of focus. He conceals exactly that on stage. His speech contains clues about his future in politics. When speaking about Joe Biden, he first describes himself as a “young politician”, before immediately correcting that to “former politician”. Moreover, the question arises whether he would explain Vooruit’s strategy for the elections so bluntly if he still wants to participate in those elections – he is aware that Flemish journalists will also attend his speech in Amsterdam.
Sometimes he sounds a bit cynical when he says that “everything you do in politics is subject to criticism”. On stage in Amsterdam he sells himself as a communications consultant, in front of a room full of potential customers. Politics seems far away here.