France implements new plan to combat Islamic radicalization

Courtesy of French President Emmanuel MacronPARIS, France – The French government is launching tough new measures to tackle radicalization among Muslims in schools and prisons as well as jihadists returning from Middle Eastern regions where the Islamic State once held sway.

The measures are the third package of steps to crack down on would-be terrorists in the last four years, a period when militants killed 240 people in a series of deadly attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere.

“The new plan is much better because it addresses prevention,” said Nathalie Goulet, a senator with the Centrist Union center-right parliamentary group. “Previous measures mostly focused on criminal regulation, which didn’t solve the problem.”

Without providing details on costs, the government will invest in training teachers to detect the early signs of radicalization among students and debunk conspiracy theories and fake news spread through social media, said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe in Lille in northern France when he announced the new policies on February 23.

"No one has a magic formula for de-radicalization' like you might de-install dangerous software," said. "But in France and elsewhere there are good approaches to prevention and disengagement."

Conspiracies and false information are especially causing concern France's current centrist government.

As many as 30 percent of French people between the ages of 18 and 24 don’t believe that Islamist terrorists were responsible for the attack against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 in Paris, according a study published in January by the Fondation Jean-Jaurès and Conspiracy Watch. Twelve magazine staffers died in the attack.

The new measures will also introduce tighter regulations for private and religious schools – including Islamic schools – whose number has grown rapidly in the last few years.

“While the state has to guarantee to parents the freedom to choose their children’s education, it is absolutely essential that we understand that certain private schools, where there is literally very little control, have caused great damage by teaching an ideology that is in total contradiction with the values of the French Republic,” said Simone Rodan Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee in France. “Once these kids are ‘radicalized’ it is very difficult to reverse the damage.”

Though traditionally a Catholic country, France is a secular republic where citizens are theoretically equal before the law regardless of their origin, race or religion. An estimated 5.7 million Muslims, or around 8.8 percent of the population, live in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

For the first time, the government is also taking new steps to reform prisons that have become hotbeds of Islamist radicalization. Radicalized inmates were previously dispersed among other prisoners. Now they will be housed in separate, sealed-off areas to prevent the exchange of radical ideas.

French prisons currently hold 512 people charged with acts of terrorism as well as over 1,100 inmates who have been identified as radicalized.

Cherif Kouachi, one of the gunmen who attacked Charlie Hebdo, and Ahmed Coulibaly, who killed four people at a Jewish supermarket four days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, were radicalized in the French prison system.

Inspired by similar initiatives in Denmark, French officials are also setting up three centers to screen jihadists and help reintegrate other French citizens who are coming back from ex-war zones in Syria and Iraq.

In addition, further investments are being slated for the psychological care of former fighters’ children. According to government data, 68 children, most below the age of 13, have returned from former Islamic State-controlled areas. Another 500 are estimated to be still in the Middle East.

The latest measures mark a U-turn from previous security plans, which critics said lacked comprehensive strategies and failed to deal with the causes of radicalization.

The country’s first and only de-radicalization center was shut down in 2017 after less than a year because it failed to attract volunteer participants. The center cost around $3 million.

Another de-radicalization program that had been outsourced to a non-governmental organization ended in failure when the group’s former president received a suspended sentence for embezzlement of public funds.

The renewed anti-radicalization drive comes as President Emmanuel Macron has proposed hardening France’s immigration and asylum system.

Macron’s legislation, which lawmakers will debate in the spring, aims to speed up the process for asylum requests, double to 90 days the time a person without papers can be kept in holding centers and criminalize illegal border crossings.

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

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