France ‘must change its approach’ to deradicalising Islamists

AFP file picture | France’s first deradicalisation centre opened in Pontourny in the Loire in Spetember, 2016.

After a parliamentary report this week said that French deradicalisation efforts were failing to produce results, Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar spoke to FRANCE 24 about what the country can do to improve its track record.


A French Senate committee released a damning report on the government’s deradicalisation programme on Wednesday, saying the measures put into place so far have done little, and in some cases nothing, to tackle threats posed by radicalisation.

The long-awaited report came down particularly hard on France’s first deradicalisation centre, calling it an outright “fiasco”. The centre in Pontourny in the Loire Valley opened in September last year, aiming to “deprogramme” young adults between 18 and 30 who are considered to be on the path towards Islamist radicalisation.

“Six months after it opened, this deradicalisation centre has failed to show conclusive results,” the authors of the report wrote, noting that Pontourny has only hosted nine would-be jihadists so far and is currently empty.

The report also criticised the practise of separating radicalised prisoners from other prison inmates, again stating that the move had “delivered inconclusive results”.

So what else should French authorities be doing to prevent future terrorist attacks on French soil? FRANCE 24 spoke to French-Iranian Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, an expert on radicalisation at the prominent French school of social sciences Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS).

FRANCE 24: Do you agree with the report that France’s efforts to fight radicalisation have so far failed?

Farhad Khosrokhavar: “It’s too hasty to conclude that. In Western Europe, France holds the No. 1 spot when it comes to the number of its nationals who have left to fight in Syria and Iraq,” he said, noting that between 1,200 and 1,500 French nationals are thought to have been recruited.

“Compare this to Germany or the United Kingdom, where the number is about half of that,” he said.

Khosrokhavar also noted that when France implemented its deradicalisation programme in 2014, it was one of the last nations in Europe to do so. Countries like the UK launched their deradicalisation programmes a decade ago.

“But they’ve experienced a sense of failure as well,” he said, adding: “Although the results in France may not appear all that convincing, it’s not a total failure. We’re somewhere in-between.”

Khosrokhavar said that one of the faults of the French approach is that it does not address ideological and religious issues enough.

The adults in particular “are strongly attached to ideologies, militancy and, of course, religion – these aspects shouldn’t be ignored and you have to be able to discuss these things to get them to break free of them”.

Why did it take France so long to launch deradicalisation measures?

“We are very attached to secularism in France and we don’t think that religion should play a role in society,” he said, citing the French law that calls for a clear separation between church and state.

“This cultural and political ideal slowed down the establishment of deradicalisation programmes. [Former prime minister] Manuel Valls was the first one out to launch these national initiatives in the autumn of 2014. The Fresnes prison had already begun to separate radicalised prisoners from other inmates by then, but at the time this was not yet part of the national action plan.”

“It’s been two and a half years since these measures were first launched. But again, I don’t think you can evaluate the results of them that quickly. You have to be patient and accept that it’s going to be a case of trial and error – because the first attempt won’t [always] be the one that ends up working.”

The report singles out the centre in Pontourny as a failure – what are your thoughts?

“It’s not working because admissions are way too restricted, first of all. France experienced enormous trauma after the terror attacks that took place and has chosen a rather restrictive and passive way of dealing with it. The deradicalisation centres are meant to host only ‘innocent’ people – in other words, people who have never committed any real acts of violence … It’s done on a voluntary basis for those who subjectively view themselves as radicalised.”

Khosrokhavar said that France would need to go one step further and base admission on the potential risk a person might actually pose to society.

“It is, of course, easier said than done. But to me, that’s the only way to make [the programmes] successful.”

Khosrokhavar said Denmark could serve as a good example. The Nordic country’s deradicalisation efforts include trying to reach out to youths returning from Syria and Iraq through conversation.

“The thinking needs to be long term, where the youths are surveilled for two years or more,” he said, adding that religious leaders, such as Imams, could help in reaching out to youths at risk of becoming radicalised.

He also said that psychologists and police should be involved.

“We’re still going to have a few hundred youths returning from Syria and Iraq,” he said. “The measures put into place need to make them think and reflect over the path they take in life.”

Is deradicalisation even possible?

“Some people can be deradicalised, but not everyone,” Khosrokhavar said. “It’s impossible with the hardcore jihadists, those who are totally convinced. These types of profiles are very dangerous and represent about 10 to 15 percent of those who have been radicalised.” Prison might be one of the only ways of dealing with these die-hard believers, he said.

But Khosrokhavar said there are also the “in-betweens”. “They’re the ones who are convinced by the ideology but who are opposed to committing acts of violence. To get through to them and convince them you need to debate with them, get them to reject violence.”

Khosrokhavar said there is also a third category of those who have actually defected from a radical group.

“Put them to work!” he said. “Some want to get involved in [deradicalisation efforts] – you have to give them a chance to interact with the young people who are at risk.”

Finally, Khosrokhavar said the youths who have actually fought for the IS group need treatment for the psychological effects the experience has had on them.

“You have to have patience and not give up on them, because there’s no other choice: In a democracy, you can’t have a policeman follow each and every one of them,” he said.

The report also found that separating radicalised prisoners from other inmates is not effective. Why?

“You can’t just put everyone who is considered ‘radicalised’ together,” Khosrokhavar said. “If you mix hard-core jihadists with those who are still wavering, the undecided will be the ones who convert and become extremists, not the other way around.”

He also warned that grouping those deemed radical together might actually help the jihadists network.

“You need to remember that the ‘elite’ of the IS group met and networked while in the US-run prison of Abu Ghraib [in Iraq]. It’s very difficult for prison officials to stay on top of what’s going on.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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