France’s first and only deradicalisation centre was shut down last week prompting questions over the country’s lack of an effective strategy to handle a pressing problem that has attracted plenty of state funding but no solutions.
It opened in September with much fanfare as news cameras trailed officials through an 18th-century French castle refitted with modern classrooms emptying onto a sun-dappled stone courtyard and single-inhabitant bedrooms sporting clean, cheery sheets.
The problem though was that there weren’t too many takers for France’s first and only deradicalisation centre.
Housed in the Château de Pontourny in the picturesque central Loire region, the Centre for Prevention, Integration and Citizenship had a capacity for 25 people. At its peak, it housed a grand total of nine participants. None of them, unfortunately, completed the 10-month programme on offer. By late February, there were none at all until finally last week the centre was shut down after a Senate committee deemed the initiative “a complete fiasco”.
Since the January 2015 attacks in Paris, France has had the unenviable distinction of being ahead of the curve in Europe’s jihadi threat circuit. Home to the continent’s biggest Muslim community and at one point the source of the largest number of Western fighters in the Syria-Iraq conflict zone, France has seen nearly 1,000 nationals travel or attempt to travel to the Islamic State (IS) group’s erstwhile “caliphate”.
The jihadist group may be rapidly losing territory in its Levantine heartland, but experts agree that the threat to the West is largely domestic and not about to die with the caliphate. Once more, France – with its roughly 15,000 suspected radical Islamists on state watchlists, including some 4,000 individuals deemed at high risk of committing an attack – appears on the frontlines of the next step in the grinding, asymmetrical war against radicalism.
The problem though, as the Château de Pontourny experience shows, is that France has not been leading the way in devising or implementing an effective counter-radicalisation strategy.
“The Pontourny experience is not surprising. This is what happens when you start with the wrong diagnostics and then figure out the wrong solutions,” explained Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist groups. “It’s not like you can just give them [radicalised youths] a red pill and they’ll start singing the Marseillaise.”
Strict, self-defeating admissions criteria
The Centre for Prevention, Integration and Citizenship in the Loire was a pilot site that was supposed to set a prototype for 13 centres of its kind across the country. Designed as a voluntary programme that would provide an intermediate space “between an open environment and a prison”, the Château de Pontourny was open to young people between 18 to 30 years.
France’s prisons have been hotbeds of Islamist radicalisation and officials were keen to maintain an open-door policy at the centre.
But problems surfaced at the onset, when the local community objected to the prospect of potentially dangerous individuals at risk of turning violent in their midst. Bearing those community concerns, the centre announced strict admissions criteria, which turned out to be self-defeating. The centre was open only to volunteer participants who had never faced terrorism charges, never travelled to Syria and were not listed on France’s vast “S” file watch-list of people posing a possible security threat.
The question of how and why would anyone voluntarily succumb to 10 months of a state-run programme – risking boredom at best and future surveillance by the security services at worst – was never addressed.
As a result, the centre never stuck with its own admissions criteria.
In a March 15 op-ed piece in Le Monde, Senator Esther Benbassa, who was part of a senate investigation committee, revealed that one of the centre’s nine residents had an “S” file designation. Another was linked to one of the Bataclan attackers who stormed the Paris concert hall in November 2015, killing nearly 90 people. Yet another had been convicted on terrorism charges.
“The de-radicalisation policies have had more than one failure since 2014,” wrote Benbassa. “The government's panic following the attacks, the immediate measures taken to reassure the population, the need for a display of promptness have not led to the launching of solid strategies designed after broad consultations that are accessible and pursuing precise objectives.”
The state’s deradicalisation funding gravy train
Benbassa’s conclusions were underscored when a Paris court handed Sonia Imloul, former president of a de-radicalisation NGO, a four-month suspended prison sentence for embezzlement of public funds.
A community activist, Imloul opened a deradicalisation centre in the Parisian banlieue, or suburb, of Saint Denis in 2014.
Barely three years later, she was running afoul with the state. The court found that she had received around €60,000 worth of government grants into her personal bank account and had hired three staffers without proper contracts or paperwork.
By the time the verdict emerged, Imloul had already been consigned to the basket of hustlers jumping on the state’s anti-radicalisation funding gravy train.
The Saint Denis community activist was found to be involved, sometimes as a victim, sometimes not, in more than a dozen scam cases over the past 20 years. She was accused of being médiatique – or excessive self-promotion on the media, a venial sin in France – and consigned to deradicalisation history.
‘Mme Déradicalisation’ breaks with the state
Another médiatique figure to court controversy has been Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and writer dubbed Mme Déradicalisation by the French press.
In February 2016, Bouzar made the national headlines when she announced that her NGO, CPDSI (Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam) would not renew its contract with the French Interior Ministry.
The reason for the break with the French state, Bouzar explained, was over the government’s bid for a constitutional amendment that would strip dual national terror convicts of their French nationality.
The constitutional amendment bid failed with then French President François Hollande backing down to opposition from civil rights groups as well as members of his own Socialist Party.
But in a book published a year later, it became evident that the nationality-stripping debate was merely the last straw for the French anthropologist-writer. Her problem with the French authorities, Bouzar claimed, was "the essentialisation of Islam", which she explained as the police’s penchant for simplifying the markers of radicalisation to cultural traits such as growing a beard or adopting a dress code.
The fall of a médiatique figure
Born to an Algerian father and French mother, Bouzar, 53, was a high-school dropout who resumed her education following a divorce from a violent husband. A colourful personality accused of imperiousness and of ratcheting over €800,000 bills for her work projects, Bouzar has been viewed with suspicion in French establishment circles.
Disapproval over Bouzar’s médiatique disposition peaked over her use of a case of a woman -- known by the pseudonym “Léa” – in her press interviews and a book on deradicalisation. Léa, a young Frenchwoman, was planning an attack on a synagogue in Lyon before she was “deradicalised” by the CPDSI. Months later though, the French press discovered that Bouzar’s deradicalisation success story had failed: Léa was back in prison.
Recidivism being an unfortunate peril of the job, the case would not have attracted the kind of censure it did in countries like Britain and the US, where private NGOs use the media to raise awareness as well as maintain their funding. But in France, where the state is expected to fund programmes run by bureaucrats with no need for media exposure, Bouzar had indulged in Bouzarisme or Bouzarisation or, in some cases, Bouzarologie.
A very French intellectual powwow
Labels were also applied to her deradicalisation work, which uses family therapy and psychological counselling including tapping into childhood experiences and the use of mentor figures to reach alienated youths, earning her the moniker “Madeleine de Proust”.
In the world of deradicalisation, where techniques and policies are still in trial stages, Bouzar’s work draws from her doctoral thesis on the anthropology of religion.
Meanwhile her thesis director, Olivier Roy, a renowned French political scientist, has been locked in a bitter intellectual debate on the nature of France’s jihadist problem, with his fellow French political Islam scholar, Gilles Kepel.
The vitriolic feud between the two men has raged in the French and international press, with Keppel arguing adopting a structuralist model that faults the radicalisation of Islam while Roy focuses on the individual, primarily the phenomenon of rebelion-seekers adopting Islam or what he calls “the Islamisation of radicalism”.
Flush with state funding and under an intense media spotlight, France’s deradicalisation circuit has been dominated by intellectual debates, ego clashes and the ever-present whiff of self-promotion and funding misappropriation.
Lost in all the rivalry and backbiting is the business of reaching out to untold numbers of young, disaffected “seekers” in danger of finding answers in the world of violent jihad.
A hard vs ‘hug a terrorist’ approach
Critics say the state’s focus on “responsible citizenship” and relearning “les valeurs de la République” – or Republican values – is not particularly helpful for citizens who have lost faith in the state. The focus, Wassim believes, should be on convincing indoctrinated citizens to reject violence and not deriding their ideology.
“Each case has many levels, but you cannot deny that there is a political and religious motivation,” explained Wassim. “It’s like trying to address the target market with the wrong gun.”
While deradicalisation programmes are in a nascent stage across the US and western Europe, a “soft approach” policy adopted by the Danish city of Aarhus has been widely hailed across the world. The “Aarhus model”, which involves helping the IS group’s returning fighters reintegrate into society has been dubbed the “hug a terrorist” approach in law-enforcement circles. But many experts maintain it’s the best strategy on the table right now.
“They don’t tell returnees: ‘You’re criminals who will be punished’. Instead, they say, ‘Okay, you did your duty and you helped the Muslim world. Now you have to disengage and keep up the fight in a non-violent way,’” explains Wassim.
In the absence of a proven, definitive anti-radicalisation strategy, experts are calling for patience in tackling the new threat.
There is “no magic wand, neither in France nor elsewhere in Europe, or in the world,” warned Muriel Domenach, Secretary General of France’s Interministerial Committee for the Prevention of Radicalisation, in a column in Le Monde before adding, “The lessons learned from the evaluation of the Pontourny rehabilitation centre will be put to the test.”
In a statement released last week, the Interior Ministry noted that while the Pontourny centre was closing, it would continue to seek alternatives to long-term imprisonment for extremists.
"In particular, the government will study the possibility of opening smaller-sized structures to host individuals in criminal custody and to develop alternative solutions to incarceration," the statement noted.
Until that time though, the Pontourny model is not about to be replicated across the country and the beautiful 18th-century chateau in the Loire River Valley will be heading for another refurbishment and refitting by the French state.