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Belgian Foreign Minister Reynders under fire for 'blacking up'

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders has drawn criticism after he appeared at a charity event with a blackened face. Reynders has been accused of racial insensitivity and ignoring his country's colonial past.

Reynders found himself at the center of a growing media storm on Thursday, after publishing pictures of himself on a march through Brussels wearing black face paint.

In a blog on his website, Reynders wrote proudly of his attendance at the annual gathering of "Les Noirauds" (The Blackies) in Brussels. The group, founded in 1876, adhered to its annual tradition last Saturday of holding a carnival in central Brussels to raise money for disadvantaged children.

The liberal politician on Monday posted blog pictures of himself in the thick of it all, wearing make-up, a white top hat and a flamboyant white ruff shirt.

However, it wasn't until Wednesday that the controversy took hold, with the television channel France 2 broadcasting a report that about the Noirauds' march. It showed Reynders and socialist Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur taking part, with reporter Francois Beaudonnett asking if it wasn't surprising that a politician of Reynder's standing was "taking to the stage in the manner of an African tribal chief."

'Spirit of good will'

On his website, Reynders said he had taken part in a spirit of "good will and good humor."

However, some people - including the European media director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Andrew Stroelhein - didn't see the funny side.

HRW's emergency director Peter Bouckaert tweeted his disapproval loud and clear: "#Belgium FM @Dreynders I have question: will u wear #blackface outfit 2 next meeting w African leaders? Shame on you!"

The controversy gained traction on Twitter after actress Mia Farrow retweeted Stroelheim's message with an exclamation mark.

Reynders antics were described as "deplorable" by Wouter Van Bellingen, director of Belgium's Minority Forum.

Tim und Struppi Tintin au Congo

Belgian cultural icon Tintin still stokes controversy because of crude portrayals of African characters

"In other civilised countries his political career wouldn't survive this, but in Belgium he just continues," said Nigerian-born Belgian-based author Chika Unigwe.

'A French folly'

However, many Belgians appeared taken by surprise at the outrage. Former president of the Barreaux de Bruxelles lawyers' association, Jean-Pierre Buyle described it as the "folly of a French journalist," echoing the online sentiments of many Belgians.

Even the left-leaning Belgian Green party downplayed the Noirauds as being a piece of innocuous folklore.

Belgian broadcaster RTBF wondered if the furor was nothing more than a "stir caused by an outside observer having a sharper eye than those who, at all costs, defend folklore and tradition."

Given Belgium's colonial past until the 1960s, the incident was viewed as particularly unfortunate by rights groups such as HRW. Under King Leopold II, the Congo region was savagely exploited for its natural resources and was the scene of many of the worst atrocities of the colonial age.

Belgium notably had to publicly grapple with racial issues against the mirror of its colonial history after a legal request to ban the Herge's racially-stereotyped book "Tintin in the Congo." The judge refused.

The upset caused by Reynders' blacking up echoes the unease created in the neighboring Netherlands over

"Black Pete"

- a jolly sidekick of Saint Nicholas whose appearance some people attempt to replicate during the festive season by wearing afro wigs and painting their faces.

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