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Exit interview: Brussels city councillor Marion Lemesre

23:00 14/10/2018

A name you won't have seen on yesterday's ballot paper is Marion Lemesre, who after 36 years on Brussels city council is stepping down - because "maybe a new generation has new answers".

The alderwoman for economic affairs, who says she has "a knack for taking on basket cases" has championed tourism, business, culture and youth in the city. She opens up about her career - and how Brussels 2000 Capital of Culture was "a lost opportunity".

How did you get your start in politics?

My studies were in broadcasting. At first I was a copywriter in advertising and then a reporter at Radio Contact where I did a show called Quartiers Libres, which highlighted different Brussels neighbourhoods. Being a “free radio” Radio Contact was completely illegal since at the time only the government radio (RTBF) was allowed to broadcast. However Pierre van Halteren, the mayor of Brussels at the time, was a strong believer in freedom of the press and the end of the RTBF monopoly of the airwaves and used city money to support us. Subsequently he asked me to be on his electoral list and offered me the 14th position. I came in eighth and that’s how I started on the city council 36 years ago. Unfortunately my first election coincided with the loss of the majority after a betrayal that left us out in the cold despite our win of 15 seats, and my first 12 years were spent in the opposition. However it was a great training ground. 

And after 12 years?

In 1994 we were part of the majority again and I was alderwoman for culture, tourism and youth. From 1988 to 1994, due to severe financial problems, the city of Brussels had been under financial guardianship and the culture and tourism budgets were eviscerated almost to extinction to make up for the budget shortfalls. All that was left of a tourism programme was a welcome counter in the city hall. Rebuilding it was not easy, since the two language communities did not want Brussels to have its own identity and basically Brussels was treated as just a gateway to Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders wanted to promote Brussels as a Flemish city and Wallonia did not want Brussels to be promoted independently from francophone Belgium - but eventually we were able to create a new structure that included convention promotion as well as pleasure tourism, and regionalised Brussels on a tourism level.

Our campaign, Brussels My Discovery, created an image that was specific to the city and was quite successful. On the culture side we strengthened individual institutions such as the Riches Claires, the Brigittines, by creating an administration, a non-profit for each institution, a separate budget, set up a structure that created transparency and maintained clean governance. Unfortunately, after six years we fell back into the opposition and that was very frustrating; after having created these new structures it was painful to not be able to build on them but I have to say that those who took over did a great job of continuing the process.

You’ve been alderwoman for economic affairs for the past six years. How has it been?

It seems that I have a knack for taking on basket cases. The previous alderman for economic affairs was fond of saying that he “didn’t like merchants and shopkeepers because they are so mercantile” so you can imagine in what state the office was. Between keeping the open air markets strong, revitalising neighbourhoods by attracting quality businesses, supporting merchants through difficult construction projects and implementing an overall vision, there is much to do.

One of the elements of the majority accord was that we needed not only to create a strong economic policy but to implement it. But to create an administration one needs a budget, which means that others’ budgets will need to be reduced. It took three years to create an actual economic affairs department. After years of practically no policy and no controls, problems abounded. One such problem is shortsighted greedy landlords lowering the quality of their neighbourhoods with inappropriate or an oversupply of specific businesses such as night shops, gift shops or massage parlours which pay high deposits and high rents to the landlords but lower the attractiveness and liveability of the neighbourhood. For the massage parlours as fronts for prostitution we are in a battle with a Sino-Dutch mafia that imports young Chinese women and takes over buildings to house them.

Unfortunately it’s very hard to close a business, there are lawyers and appeals, so we need to build strong cases and we do have testimony, police reports, and a coordination between different city agencies which is why a vertical approach is so important. Beyond that we have to demonstrate through zoning and other tools that if they are planning to take over a business and change its allocation they will have problems.

Where are we with the revitalisation of the Îlot Sacré neighbourhood? 

Bringing this neighbourhood back has been a major project involving our department, the federal public services, the social services for employment issues, hygiene control, urban planning, on site inspections and so on - again, a complete vertical approach. First we had to ferret out the scams, the money laundering, the touting, the health violations, the illegal terraces, to remove the worst of the businesses. All the ugly dirty marquees that hid the beautiful historic façades were removed. Next the sewers which hadn’t been upgraded since the 1950s, and the electric and telephone networks had to be brought to current standards. Now that that work is completed all the street surfaces are being redone and the street lighting is being replaced. All the legal street furniture will be uniform and required, any restaurant that isn’t in compliance with the aforementioned health regulations will not be permitted to purchase the new furniture and will therefore have no outdoor seating. Two new medium and upscale housing projects are nearing completion, and bringing inhabitants back to the neighbourhood will foster a mix of shops - shops that local inhabitants, regional inhabitants and tourists need. The filling of the retail spaces now available with the ouster of the bad elements. Everything should be completed by spring 2019. 

What are your best memories?

From the first mandate, that of which I have been the most proud is the creation of the Montagne Magique theatre for young people on the rue du Marais. Children love it, schools love it, there was an instant infatuation with it. That is a very good memory. From the current mandate, the best memory is the creation of the team. It’s the human beings that I met in my cabinet, in the administration and in the merchants’ associations that were created - we really built something that will last. 

What was your biggest disappointment?

My biggest disappointment has to be Brussels 2000 European Capital of Culture. I was the person who had carried the candidacy from the beginning, who had completed the application, who had found eminently talented people to create an event that was based on Brussels’ cultural vitality, diversity, and strength. Unfortunately the federal government and the Flemish government imposed a number of weak choices that only existed for political reasons. The proof is, the only thing that has survived from Brussels 2000 is the wonderful Zinneke Parade. It was a lost opportunity for great things that I feel keenly. 

You didn’t stand in yesterday’s elections. What’s next?

Obviously I would have preferred to spend 24 years in the majority and 12 years in opposition rather than the other way around, but I feel that I have given the most of myself and also that maybe a new generation has new answers. Experience can provide answers to problems but we can’t build the answers to the problems on experience. We need the new generation’s imagination, their way of seeing how the future will be. And for me my current way of seeing myself in the future is my upcoming holiday in Greece, taking care of myself, taking care of my family, reading, accepting the fact of retiring at 65 next year. I’m stopping working for the city in December and for the region next June, just in time for my 65th birthday in July. It might be two or three years too early, but it’s definitely not six years too early because if I had run for another term by that point I would be 71 which might be a little late to start the third part of one’s life. Also at this point I don’t feel any hands pushing me out the door, in fact people are saying, “Why don’t you stay a little longer?” Better to leave on an up note.

Written by Richard Harris