De-Radicalization in France: failures and success stories

Photo Credit: alliance / dpa / Speich Frédéric

In early 2014, France’s security services had serious problems, because week after week dozens of French residents left for the Syrian-Iraqi combat zone. Not only they could not keep them, they had not even recognized them as radical Islamists. In April 2014, years after Denmark and Great Britain, the French government presented a first plan to combat violent radicalization. The three-day series of attacks in January 2015, which killed eight members of the Charlie Hebdo editorial team, heralded in a long series of jihadist acts of terrorism, the most deadly were those in Paris on November 13, 2015 (132 dead) and in Nice on July 14, 2016 ( 86 dead). Soon after, the French government announced one repressive measure after the other: a counter-terrorism plan in late January 2015, a security pact in November 2015, an “Action Plan Against Radicalization and Terrorism” in May 2016, a “Plan for Prison Security and Against Violent Radicalization” in October 2016. What all these initiatives had in common: They primarily focused on punishment, but also sought to answer the question of how radicals could be “de-radicalized” in the first place.

The overwhelmed French authorities relied on outsourcing. They entrusted real and supposed experts from the private sector with the mentoring of young, often underage, jihad aspirants. In April 2014, the “Centre de Prévention des Dérives Sectaires Liées à l’Islam” in Lille was founded. As its name suggests, the center saw jihadism as a sectarian perversion of Islam. However, the NGO did not try to combat this with a religious counter-discourse, but with an affect-related approach: memories from childhood were intended to lead the lost adolescents back to the bosom of the family before they rubbed themselves against reality in discussion groups with the participation of “dropouts”. The “Maison de la Prévention et de la Famille”, which opened near Paris in autumn 2014, also relied on group discussions in the style of AA meetings; In contrast to the “Centre de Prévention des Dérives Sectaires Liées à l’Islam”, however, it also included theological discussions.

These institutes were shipwrecked. The founder of “Maison de la Prévention et de la Famille” was sentenced to four months in prison in April 2017 for embezzling public funds, the “Centre” had already terminated the cooperation with the Interior Ministry at the beginning of 2016 due to political differences. But it had also been criticized for working with a former mentor to the Charlie Hebdo killers, whose renunciation of jihadism some questioned.

The first attempt by the authorities to take “de-radicalization” into their own hands was unsuccessful. In September 2016, a “Prevention, Rehabilitation and Citizenship Teaching Center” opened in a town called Pontourny in the Loire region. With an annual budget of 2,5 million euros, the institution should look after up to twenty-five “radicalized”. But it never brought together more than nine – the center was already empty five months after it opened, and it closed in July 2017.

In retrospect, two factors seem to explain the failure of a project like the one in Pontourny. First, the course had been set in the wrong place: located in a village of 2,700 inhabitants, the center met with rejection from the residents and parts of the regional media from day one. In addition, the fact that participation was voluntary meant that “clients” dropped out of the program at the slightest difficulty. Finally, the interior minister at the time ordered that no IS accomplices should be admitted. So in Pontourny everyone was “de-radicalized” – just not the really radical ones. Second, the center lacked political support. Forty percent of the prefectures did not pass on the dossiers of potential “clients” as requested, possibly for fear of seeing such a center open in their region, as announced by the government.

In July 2017, a much-publicized report by two senators complained about the government’s “hasty” and even “panic” in launching new programs without adequate monitoring and evaluation. But its two authors also practiced self-criticism: “Our time, the time of politicians is short. It is incompatible with that of resocialization of radicalized individuals.” The term “resocialization” has since replaced “de-radicalization”. The aim is no longer to deprive Islamists of their fundamentalist ideas. But they should renounce violence – not under compulsion, but of their own accord.

The cornerstones of the programs launched since the end of 2016 are the interdisciplinary nature of the care team and the individuality of care. The first programs in Mulhouse and in the greater Paris area produced promising results. A book about an initiative that has been kept secret for a long time was published. In “Les Surgissants”, an anthropologist sheds light on the experimental program “Recherche et intervention sur les violences extrémistes” (Rive) carried out by a prison administration, in which the scientist participated as an observer and researcher. Apparently the book has not been edited, but the work of the “resocializers” describes it in unprecedented detail.

The radicals cared for as part of the “Rive” program were sentenced to prison terms for bloodless violations of the law, such as attempting to leave the country for Syria or announcing an assassination plan, which they were allowed to serve in open prisons. During a trip to the former battlefields of Verdun, an eighteen-year-old boy of Tunisian descent receives the death certificate of a presumed great-grandfather who died on site from his companion. Another way of forging ties with the Republic and its history is to sing the Marseillaise every day while hoisting the Tricolore. Others are allowed to visit renowned political scientists, who explain the background to the war in Yemen or the history of the Syrian-Iraqi combat zone. There are trips to the museum or the zoo, you play basketball or stroll along the English Channel beach, always accompanied by one or two mentors. Sometimes they “work on the center from the periphery”, talk about hobbies and reveal personal things. Sometimes they attack the content of the jihadist worldview head-on.

A lot of improvisation is involved, a lot of empathy and a sense of the right time to bring about a psychological click. The aim is not to substitute one truth for another, the mentees should rather receive as many different types of food for thought as possible so that they can critically reflect on all possible “sources” themselves, from the text of the Quran to IS tweets. Wherever possible, families are also involved – in many cases, of course, they are part of the problem. Finally, a lot of energy is put into training and reintegration, from looking for a school to finding a job or an apartment. As is usual with suspended sentences, the mentees face imprisonment if they repeatedly violate the conditions.

The “Rive” program and those who continue it to this day are aimed at radicals who have not bloodied their hands either directly or indirectly. It is an initiative for small and medium-sized criminals who are mostly on the verge of adulthood and are often psychologically unstable. Prison inmates with a similar profile are also cared for where possible. Hardened ideologues and murderous fanatics are not part of the target group.

Rive and similar programs raise the (legitimate) question of how much money and resources a society is willing to invest in trying to save its struggling members from irreversible fall. One thing is certain: to do nothing would be deadly recklessness. In the next few years, hundreds of “little” jihadists will have served their prison sentences in France, including many who have returned from Syria. If it is not possible to resocialize them, there is a risk of a relapse into radicalism.

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