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Belgian socialist leader says sorry for racist remarks

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Flemish Socialist Party leader Conner Rousseau apologized for racist remarks he made last month, insisting that he was drunk and his comments were meant to be “a joke.”

But his words were met with anger by several Belgian public officials, who slammed the socialist leader for his offensive remarks and criticized his apology as lackluster.

Rousseau came under fire in September after it was reported that he made racist and xenophobic comments while talking to police officers during a festival in the Flemish city of Sint-Niklaas.

Rousseau formally apologized during a press conference on Thursday, saying he was sorry for the “insulting statement” he made, which was offensive toward the Roma community.

“It’s not consistent with who I am. My volunteer work, the person I am, my political commitment … weighs much more than one sad, clumsy moment,” Rousseau said, as reported by multiple local outlets.

Rousseau insisted that he was “in a drunken state” and said things he “would never say in a sober state.”

Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the incident, but Rousseau said there must be “an intentional element” for it to be prosecuted as racist.

“You have to want to hurt and offend someone. You really have to speak intentionally about a group. I really don’t think that’s the case. Also the state I was in. You really can’t value what was said there then,” he said.

But Belgian public officials, including Rousseau’s own coalition partners, are not letting him off the hook easily, with criticism pouring in from members of the Flemish CD&V, French-speaking socialists PS, and Ecolo, among others.

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said on social media that “racism after excuses remains racism.”

“Racism is racism,” said Nadia Naji, president of the Flemish Greens and another coalition partner of Rousseau. “There are no extenuating circumstances for this.”

Despite the criticism from coalition parties, senior members of Rousseau’s own party have so far refrained from reproval.

This isn’t the first time Rousseau has come under fire. Earlier this year, prosecutors dropped charges that had been filed against him for sexual assault. And last year, he was criticized for controversial comments about the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek — Rousseau said he doesn’t feel like he is in Belgium when he drives through the neighborhood — that many deemed racist.

Barbara Moens contributed reporting.

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