PARIS — Rocked by a string of Islamist terror attacks capped by a deadly rampage in the heart of Paris in late 2015, French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration this week set out tough new measures to crack down on Islamic radicalization in schools, prisons and online.
But hopes here that the new policies will work aren’t high — it’s the third such plan French officials have floated just in the past four years.
Amid fears that French-born recruits to Islamic State may be making their way home after the terror group’s battlefield defeats, the state’s multiple plans are seen as symbolic of France’s struggles to deal with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and to assimilate disaffected young Muslims into French society and culture. Since the first anti-radicalization plan was floated in 2014, militants have been blamed for the deaths of some 240 people in attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere.
This time, the authors insist, will be different.
“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 Edouard Philippe in Lille, a city 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,” he said. “But in France and elsewhere there are good approaches to prevention and disengagement.”
Conspiracies and false information are especially causing concern for Mr. Macron’s centrist government.
Up to 30 percent of French youth 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-Jaures 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 nonreligious republic where citizens are theoretically equal before the law regardless of their national origin, race or faith. An estimated 5.7 million Muslims live in the country, according to the Pew Research Center, although the strictly secular French census does not ask respondents about their religion, race or ethnicity.
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, first were exposed to radical Islamist ideas while serving sentences in French prisons, authorities say.
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. According the U.S.-based Soufan Center, a think tank, more than 250 of the nearly 2,000 French nationals who went to the Middle East for fight for the Islamic State have made their way home, the third highest total of returnees in Europe behind Britain and Germany.
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 Mr. Macron has proposed hardening France’s immigration and asylum system.
Mr. 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.