Things are going from bad to worse in Molenbeek. More than five years after her resounding election victory, Mayor Catherine Moureaux (PS) is losing control and is in danger of becoming politically isolated.
We are a year before the elections and Catherine Moureaux, mayor of Molenbeek, is wavering. She has a rock-solid name, has been tried and tested in the power party PS through her father and mother, and received a strong mandate from the voters in 2018. And yet she is in danger of losing control completely. How could that happen?
Flashback to election night in October 2018. Against expectations, the PS achieves a resounding victory. Outgoing mayor Françoise Schepmans (MR) bites the dust. PS party leader Moureaux gets more preferential votes, PS-SP.A becomes the largest party. It produces iconic images of a radiant Catherine Moureaux being hoisted onto a car by a cheering population.
It was Minister of State Philippe Moureaux who had brought his daughter over from Schaarbeek for a change of power. Since 1992, Philippe Moureaux himself kept the municipality under tight control as mayor, until he was removed by the MR in 2012. It was a humiliation he would not soon forget. But he was able to get his point across. Catherine Moureaux could become mayor. Her father was just able to experience that. A few months later he would die of a long illness.
The festive buzz does not last long. Moureaux opts for four aldermen without any administrative experience. For Moureaux, they must herald renewal. But many see, with the aldermen, the age-old clientelism flaring up again. A perfume de scandale would soon emerge.
The opposition is on the fence. The smallest incident immediately takes on a life of its own. These are smaller scandals that often spice up Brussels municipal politics and are grist to the opposition’s mill, but which are rapidly detracting from the image of “stability and innovation” that Moureaux had proclaimed when announcing the administrative agreement.
It is the magazine Médor, specialized in investigative journalism, that raises the alarm with some stories about the new aldermen. For example, it turned out that Abdellah Achaoui was paid generously as chairman of the Union youth team, and he had withdrawn thousands of euros in cash with the youth team’s bank card. He denies at first, but then would have to admit. He resigns from the non-profit organization École Des Jeunes of Union Sint-Gillis. The public prosecutor’s office is investigating the case.
Alderman Ahmed Gjanaj had laid a kilometer-long carpet to support the traders on the Gentsesteenweg, but he had forgotten that this required a public tender. Cost price 27,500 euros. Later things went wrong with the municipal non-profit organization Molenbeek Sport, of which the other councilor, Jamal Azaoum, is chairman. The non-profit organization will be sentenced to penalty payments in 2021 because sports fields in the municipality were not allocated correctly. Azaoum must resign from the non-profit organization. Moureaux retains confidence in the three aldermen.
Things went wrong with PS faction leader Jamal Ikazban at the end of last year. Ikazban is not only the voting champion in the municipality, he was also Philippe Moureaux’s partner for a long time. However, he had to watch with sorrow as father Moureaux brought his daughter to the municipality and pushed Ikazban aside with a clever trick.
It went like this. At a board meeting, Philippe Moureaux had daughter Moureaux’s candidacy as party leader done with a show of hands, against all customs. No one dared to go against the doyen of the PS, not even Ikazban. He had to settle down and play second fiddle in the community. In exchange, he was allowed to run full-time as a member of parliament.
But when the surcharges were increased last year – the municipality is in dire financial straits – Ikazban goes directly against the council of aldermen. He loses the party chairmanship. Since then he hardly comes to the municipal council. Which does not mean that he has really left Molenbeek politics. His shadow continues to hang over the council of aldermen.
“All difficulties within the municipality are related to this,” analyzes a liberal cabinetard. “The PS in Molenbeek is hopelessly divided into clans, and Catherine Moureaux cannot get the party on the same page. Ikazban actually wanted to become mayor, but that was not granted to him.” An experienced socialist municipal councilor does not deny that there is a battle for power within the PS. “Everyone wants to be mayor,” she sighs.
Hardleers and Cassant
What certainly plays a role in this struggle for power is that Moureaux has been parachuted in from outside. Many local socialists feel that they do not know the municipality sufficiently. There is also a lot to do about her style. She comes across as tough. Her character seems to be a mix of her mother, former politician Françoise Dupuis, and her father.
This observation is not new. Even when she was appointed, the press was talking about her cassante, somewhat intimidating style. She did not deny this at the time, but said she always took into account the person she was sitting opposite. “If it’s someone who can’t defend themselves, I won’t be tough,” she replied at the time.
Intimates say that she does have a friendly side, and that she is a victim of her image. “The fact that she is a woman clearly plays to her disadvantage. You will say about a man: that style represents strong leadership, while in a woman it quickly sounds like she is dominant,” says a socialist supporter.
Yet she has carried this authoritarian style, whether perceived or not, from the beginning of her mayoralty. “Moureaux arrived here in a territoire conquis,” says the liberal cabinetard. “She wanted to restore the Moureaux dynasty. She thought: I’m going to manage here like
my father, but in the meantime much water has flowed into the sea. We are in a different period, an authoritarian government such as Philippe Moureaux used is no longer tolerated.”
“She is very bossy and authoritarian, like her father. But without the authority, the experience and the network,” an ex-alderman summarizes it. You can become angry with authority, and thus set out your lines, but you can also become angry out of powerlessness. It’s like a cat in a corner. He’s going to make strange jumps. That’s what seems to be happening here. Politics is a cold-blooded game. The question is whether Moureaux has mastered that.
The storm is also located on another front. The municipality is in financial trouble, while the challenges are enormous. “That is a bad situation to get out of a political crisis,” says the former alderman. “If there is money, you can promise projects or recruit people. That is hardly possible now.” At the beginning of October, tensions within the PS reached a low point. According to an article in La Capitale, based on anonymous testimonies that were not confirmed, the Socialist aldermen were called to Catherine Moureaux’s office to discuss the dismissal of an employee of the green department. Alderman Abdellah Achaoui continued to support the man, an altercation is said to have arisen in which Achaoui is said to have shouted: “If your father were still alive, this would never have happened.”
It dissolved all devils in Moureaux. She is said to have physically pushed Achaoui outside, after which the ships promptly went to the doctor to have ‘confirmations’ made. Moureaux says the story came out of the blue and threatened to go to court against strangers for defamation. Achaoui declines any comment. The vigilance committee of the Brussels PS is looking into the matter.
True or not, the case is very annoying for Moureaux. It is significant that she is now also on a collision course with Achaoui, who was initially in her camp.
At the same time, she regularly clashes with the administration. According to some, this is because it has been politicized and thus – with the support of the opposition – is making life difficult for the council of aldermen, but there is little evidence of this. For example, Marijke Aelbrecht resigned as interim municipal secretary. “I know Aelbrecht as a civil servant par excellence,” says the former alderman. “Someone who does everything for public office. Such as sacrificing himself to become interim municipal manager. If even such a person resigns, then something is going on.”
A few months earlier, just before the summer, the breach of trust with the administration was complete. A memorandum from the municipality’s management committee (including the municipal secretary, municipal collector and HR director) was described by an alderman as ‘a putsch’, “while these are tasks that have been given to us by law,” it was said in a statement. open letter from five members of that executive committee. It must be unique in the history of the nineteen baronies that the top of the municipal administration revolts against the incumbent council of aldermen.
In thinly veiled terms, the council of aldermen is accused of treating the administration in an intimidating manner, shouting and showing no respect for the work of the civil servants. A little later, the RTBF collects testimonies from employees about Mayor Moureaux shouting nose to nose at officials. Trade unions speak of a ‘toxic atmosphere’ in which aldermen directly give orders to lower officials and where legal procedures are not respected.
Moureaux, who has not been present at the town hall for three weeks, seems to be disappointed on all fronts. Within her own list, with the administration, and in the knowledge that she may not have full support from above, at the Brussels PS. For that we have to go back to the presidential elections in 2019. Then she, together with Karine Lalieux and Rachid Madrane, stood directly opposite Ahmed Laaouej. The latter narrowly won and became the strong man of the Brussels PS. Laaouej says that everyone within the PS is on the same page again. He has been reconfirmed as chairman of the PS, but he also has no desire to help his arch-rival from the time of need. At the same time, Laaouej is also generally accused of having too little contact with the local departments. The fact that the PS vigilance committee must resolve the conflict and that Laaouej did not personally go to Molenbeek may be a symptom of this.
“Catherine Moureaux is at odds with Laaouej, with Ikazban, and now also with people who initially supported her,” the liberal cabinet official summarizes. “She made a strategic mistake by not taking a more consensual stance from the start. Instead, she started to behave like a tyrant, looking for conflict. It may be a strategy, but I don’t believe it is the right one.”
“Maybe she will reflect and change her mind and now look for a more unifying role, to work together with the PS aldermen, shoulder to shoulder, to reach out to voters.”
At least it seems that way. Not one disapproving word can be heard about Moureaux from the socialist aldermen or municipal council members. They prefer to remain silent. “We continue working,” says an alderman firmly. “The rest is of no importance.”