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France: How to Stop a Martyr

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Beginning in September, the Chateau de Pontourny will be used for France's first ever Center for Reintegration and Citizenship, a residential center for the prevention of radicalization. Image by Elisabeth Zerofsky. France, 2016.

Beginning in September, the Chateau de Pontourny will be used for France's first ever Center for Reintegration and Citizenship, a residential center for the prevention of radicalization. Image by Elisabeth Zerofsky. France, 2016.

BEAUMONT-EN-VERON, France—Just outside this tranquil town in the Loire Valley built of buttermilk-colored brick and stone, a narrow drive framed on either side by plane trees veers off the main road and leads to an 18th-century manor known as the Château de Pontourny. On an overcast morning in late June, two weary social workers stood outside chatting over cigarettes, and a Syrian teenager pulled up on a scooter. It was a final sleepy moment at Pontourny; the center’s new director was arriving that morning for a brief visit. Soon, Pontourny would have a new mission.

For the past few years the manor has been a home for unaccompanied foreign minors. As of July, however, its few dozen remaining residents were transferred elsewhere and some of the staff went into a period of retraining. This month, Pontourny will reopen as France’s first Center for Prevention, Integration and Citizenship — or what has otherwise been referred to as a deradicalization center.

Since January 2015, when the Charlie Hebdo murders inaugurated a string of terror attacks in France, committed mostly by people born and raised in the country, French national security policy has attempted to address the dangers of homegrown jihadism. Classic counterterrorism measures have comprised the greater part of this effort, but the government has slowly begun to direct money toward broader social initiatives to help combat radicalization as well. In April 2015, Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced a plan to open a number of residential rehabilitation centers, one in each region of France, to provide “psychological, medico-social, and educational support” to facilitate “disengagement from radicalization, development of a critical mind, and appropriation of citizenship and of republican values,” according to the plan’s charter.

The town of Beaumont agreed to work with Pierre N’Gahane, the official spearheading the new initiative, who proposed Pontourny as a laboratory for France’s new deradicalization experiment. “The majority of people feel we need to do something,” Bernard Château, Beaumont’s mayor, told me in his office in the town’s Hôtel de Ville, three hours outside Paris. “We don’t want a repeat of 2015” — a year bookended by devastating violence. Château and N’Gahane, who at the time was the head of the Interministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency (CIPD), agreed that the young people housed at Pontourny would not include anyone dangerous. Rather, the residents would be “people we are trying to save before they fall off the edge into radicalism,” Château said. “And we thought, OK, if it’s really this group of people, if you save the jobs at Pontourny, let’s talk about it, why not.” Local and national officials agreed to set the center’s re-opening for September.

Then, in early March, N’Gahane implied in a radio interview that France’s first center for the prevention of radicalization would be hosting people who had already tried to leave for Syria but had been stopped by security forces — people who are indeed considered to be at great risk of turning violent. To the media, both local and national, this sounded as if Beaumont had agreed to staff a prison with social workers. “An hour and a half later, the media come hurtling into town with cameras on their shoulders,” Château said. “We thought, OK, the government is trying to pull one over on us.” The media ruckus lasted only a few days. N’Gahane later sent out a memo clarifying that the first residents of the Beaumont center would come “voluntarily” and be restricted to those who had “never been convicted for acts linked to radicalization.”

Things have calmed down, though Château said there is a small group, about 100 out of 3,000 local residents, who remain opposed to the idea. But the confusion over who will be housed at Pontourny — does anyone choose “voluntarily” to be deradicalized? — how dangerous they will be, and what treatment they will undergo reflect broader uncertainty in Europe about the radicalization process and whether it can be reversed.

The center’s charter notes that it is “experimental,” which rightly suggests its organizers don’t have concrete answers. But there’s reason to wonder whether France is asking the right questions.

Radicalization is a murky process. Though it affects only a small number of people, that number seems to be growing in France and there’s little agreement on how or why it happens. The sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar and others maintain that social factors like economic exclusion, social stigmatization, and the lack of a means for political expression may cause radical ideologies to resonate.

The internet, which facilitates easy communication, is also considered an enabling factor. As the journalist David Thomson observes in his 2014 book, French Jihadists, hardcore YouTube videos that get thousands of hits every week have exponentially expanded the audience for jihadism, including people without prior interest. The spectrum of French radicals ranges from the Nice attacker, who appears to have had mental health problems but no direct connection to a terrorist organization, to the attackers on Nov. 13, 2015, who were avowed members of the Islamic State.

If radicalization is a complicated process, deradicalization is even more ambiguous. It requires an articulation of whether the goal is to get someone to renounce violence, often referred to as “disengagement,” or to repudiate extremist beliefs as well; democratic governments are realizing that it may be much more reasonable to aim for the former. There is also a distinction between prevention of radicalization — intervening on behalf of someone who appears to be at risk of succumbing to radical ideology — and the more difficult task of deradicalization, which involves working with those who have embraced and adopted an ideology.

France remains behind its neighbors in instituting deradicalization programs. For years, Germany had been developing techniques to deal with its extreme right and neo-Nazi populations, which the country has attempted to apply to Islamist radicalism as well. Britain began to develop a response after the London Underground bombing in 2005. But until 2012, when Mohamed Merah killed seven people in Toulouse, France hadn’t been affected by these kinds of attacks and had no programs in place — only to now find itself seemingly ground zero for homegrown terrorism in Europe.

The French government has identified 2,073 citizens who have connections with terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq, with around 635 presently living and working in those countries, and 244 who have returned to France. (An additional 216 have left France, but their whereabouts remain unknown.) The country’s response to citizens returning from Iraq or Syria is to automatically arrest and imprison them or place them under house arrest. Unsurprisingly, a report released in June by the state agency that oversees France’s prisons noted that the system has been overwhelmed by returned fighters. Evidence from a year earlier that jailing these fighters with nonradicals was spreading radicalization led to the 2016 opening of “dedicated units,” where extremists are isolated from the rest of the prison population. Still, the 2015 report concluded that “incarceration cannot be the only treatment method” for individuals returning to France from conflict zones.

It also can’t be the only option for those who have attempted to leave. At the end of July, 19-year-old Adel Kermiche was identified as one of the participants in an attack on a Catholic church in his hometown of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy. Kermiche had been released from prison on March 18. After trying twice to leave for Syria, he was arrested in Germany and spent 10 months in a French prison. This year he told a judge that he was “a Muslim who stands for the values of mercy and benevolence,” and that he wanted to “get back to my life, see my friends, get married.” Four months later, Kermiche and an accomplice allegedly slit the throat of an 85-year-old priest.

Asiem El-Difraoui, a political scientist and the co-author of a comparative study commissioned by the French government that was published last winter on prevention and deradicalization programs in the U.K., Germany, and Denmark, told me that although there are some patterns and lessons that emerged — some approaches that seem to be effective and some that clearly do not — one of the takeaways is that there is no clear takeaway. “All over Europe,” he said, “this is trial and error.”

France’s experiments in deradicalization began in April 2014, even before the post-Charlie Hebdo string of attacks on French soil, when the government set up the Numéro Vert, or green number. The Numéro Vert is a hotline that anyone can call to receive assistance with an individual feared to be at risk of radicalization, or to notify the government if a family member has fled home unexpectedly. It has received 4,600 solicitations in two years.

The same spring, the Interior Ministry opened up a contract with the Centre for Prevention of Sectarian Drift Linked to Islam (CPDSI). The CPDSI was run by Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and a former youth educator who had on-the-ground experience with the radicalization epidemic. For years, she had observed young people, especially girls, being enticed by online jihadi recruiters. After publishing numerous articles and two books, she had begun to receive calls from bewildered parents seeking counsel. In 2014 — by which time Bouzar had gone back to school and completed doctoral work in the anthropology of religion — it was the French government that was calling for her help.

Bouzar and her associates at the CPDSI took on an immense amount of work for a modest amount of money. Hundreds of radicalization cases were referred to them, and they sent teams around France to train police prefectures. Contracting with Bouzar marked the French government’s first real attempt to tackle prevention and deradicalization: The CPSDI received 900,000 euros, or $1 million, for its work over the course of two years, which included 600,000 euros for treatment and training and 300,000 euros for research and development of counter-narrative materials.

For her part, Bouzar developed a theory of radicalization, which she describes as “relational and ideological indoctrination.” This conception holds that recruiters exploit vulnerable young people who may be harboring feelings of exclusion, humiliation, or inferiority by offering them a worldview that can provide them with a sense of omnipotence. Because she views radicalism as a cult-like construct, Bouzar offers a largely psychology-based treatment. Her two-pronged approach involves, first, an attempt to reestablish emotional security, sometimes referred to as the “Madeleine de Proust” step, in which patients are aided (together with a parent or mentor who serves as an attachment figure) to recall childhood memories of happiness before radicalization, break through the grip of radicalism, and reconnect with their previous selves. This is followed by the “cognitive step,” which often involves the aid of former jihadis; once the emotional isolation is cracked, they can attempt to deconstruct jihadi ideology by illuminating the gaps between the myths that they have been sold and the reality.

In addition to publishing prolifically, Bouzar gave frequent media interviews and was soon being referred to in the press as “Madame De-indoctrination.” But her efforts to educate the public also drew criticism. Experts have noted that although Bouzar’s method may be effective in treating the symptoms of radicalization, it doesn’t address the material factors that made the individual vulnerable in the first place. Others suggest that Bouzar’s approach runs up against the limits of its methods. Marik Fetouh, a deputy mayor of Bordeaux who helps run a preventive center there, told me he had worked with a family that had been referred to Bouzar. The father had attended a group discussion for parents said he was instructed to try to understand his son’s new expressions of religious faith. When Fetouh’s team interviewed the man’s son they could tell right away that he had a psychiatric problem. “He was talking a lot about religion, but in fact it was delirium,” Fetouh said. Today the young man is receiving medical treatment.

The biggest scandal, however, involved a young woman known by the pseudonym Léa, who had allegedly been plotting a suicide attack against a synagogue in Lyon before Bouzar’s intervention. Bouzar used Léa’s story to publicize her own successes, filming a video about the young woman (while maintaining her anonymity) and using her narrative in a book. Then, in February, the press discovered that Léa was in prison. It turned out that after appearing to turn away from radicalism, Léa had been in communication with recruiters and had married a jihadi via Skype. It was unclear whether Léa had “pretended” to be “better,” or whether she had slipped back into old habits like an “addiction,” as Bouzar described it.

When I spoke with Bouzar in June, she told me that not one of the 1,075 people her associates had worked with had turned to violence or tried (again) to leave France. (She clarified that the CPDSI had originally alerted the police about Léa, expressing concern and suggesting that she be institutionalized; they were turned down, and a prosecutor later sought Léa’s incarceration.) But she also noted that Léa’s trajectory is probably not entirely unusual – each individual experiences ups and downs. Nathalie Goulet, the senator who presides over a parliamentary commission on jihadi networks, demanded more detailed evaluation from the Ministry of the Interior last winter. (Bouzar has provided her own evaluations, and in June posted guidelines on her website for how to diagnose whether an individual has broken out of indoctrination.)

In February, Bouzar announced that she would not renew her government mandate because she objected to the government’s proposals to rescind French citizenship from dual nationals convicted of terror-related crimes, but she said she will continue her work as a private citizen. Some observers suggested that it was, instead, a convenient moment for Bouzar and the state to part ways.

Bouzar told me she believes government money has unfairly made her a target. “For 10 years, I’ve been in the media and my firm was never attacked. It’s just since we got money from [Interior Minister Bernard] Cazeneuve,” Bouzar said. “Those who criticize, they are the same ones who say the minister must find a different solution other than prison. So he gives us 600,000 euros [about $669,000] to try to work on deradicalization with families, and they still come and criticize us. Whereas what we really needed was support.”

To her critics, the furor surrounding Bouzar’s work raises questions about her methods. To her defenders, it’s a testament to the elusiveness, novelty, and magnitude of her task.

The French government’s new center for reintegration in Beaumont-en-Veron is intended to pick up where Bouzar and other early efforts leave off. Whether it will be any more effective remains an open question.

The Beaumont center, whose annual costs are estimated at up to $2.2 million, will be run by the government on the model of France’s EPIDE (Public Establishment of the Defense Integration) military-style boarding schools, which educate “marginalized” young people, often dropouts, and help train them to reintegrate into professional life.

The center will be staffed by some of the same people who worked in its previous incarnation as a foster home, after some retraining to work with the new population; they will be joined by additional specially-trained psychologists, social workers, educators, and other medical professionals. It is eventually supposed to house 30 people between 18 and 30 years old, though it is reportedly having trouble meeting its opening-day target of 10 starting volunteers for rehabilitation, according to an official familiar with the plans for the new centers. Either way, it is slated to be a preventive facility, with the residents assumed to be in need of supervision but not lockdown. They will be permitted, on consultation with the staff, to go home and visit relatives on some weekends.

Still, the official told me that the government wouldn’t allot a budget of this magnitude for “young people experiencing a crisis of adolescence” — that is, the center in Beaumont may be in an “experimental” phase for the moment, but others like it, which are scheduled to open later this year and early next, will almost certainly be closed, higher-security facilities. “If there is much greater investment it is precisely for people who are much more difficult to handle,” he said. The official noted that those who returned from Syria or Iraq, abused drugs, and are completely “desocialized” need 24-hour care for 10 months or longer, which is what these centers are designed to provide.

The programming at the center will be laid out along four axes — “distanciation,” which will involve group discussion sessions on such themes as conspiracy theories, history of religion and society, republican values, and laicité; “citizen engagement,” to include working on daily tasks in a group, first aid training, music, theater, art, a weekly newspaper, and conflict resolution; “social-professional” to provide pre-professional training and orientation; and “health,” which will largely focus on therapeutic methods, individually, in a group, and involving family.

Allegiance to the French conception of the state will be a leitmotif of the curriculum. At a colloquium on the prevention of radicalization in May, held at the École Militaire in Paris, N’Gahane said that some vulnerable young people appear to “get the impression that they do not belong to this society. … They have the feeling that they are not part of our national community.” It is France’s job, he said, “to go retrieve these people from the bottom of the pit.” A week later, he elaborated on the idea that, in addition to offering an “extended hand,” the government will seek to instill republican values. Residents of the centers, he said, would be required to wear uniforms and salute the French flag.

Experts I spoke to expressed profound skepticism about this, noting that an aggressively patriotic approach may be precisely the wrong response. Radicalization, for many, is defined by a decisive rejection of the authority of the state in favor of the political identity of a new community. The political scientist Olivier Roy told me that the public seems to want to see radicalization as a profoundly irrational phenomenon, which can be “cured” in a rational manner. “They don’t want to see the political dimension,” Roy wrote in an email. The CIPD declined repeated requests to comment for this article.

Tareq Oubrou, the rector of the grande mosquée of Bordeaux, told me that, given the stigma surrounding Islam in France today, some young people are choosing it as a way to rebel against society. Around 40 percent of known radicals in France are converts to Islam — that is to say, people with no familial connection to the religion who have chosen it for personal or political reasons. “There are some people who choose communism, some who choose Maoism, some kind of ism. Now, it’s Islam. It’s against French society,” Oubrou said. “There are some cases among these converts where they have a score to settle with society.” Islam may, in some cases, become an identity for young people who otherwise don’t have one, and jihadi ideologies reject republicanism as a heretical construct. The current French interpretation of laicité, Bouzar said, can “give the impression that you don’t have the right to be a Muslim; you have to choose between France and Islam. That’s exactly what Daesh says.” Some of the young people she works with won’t even drink from the same water fountain as unbelievers for fear of becoming impure. The idea that they will salute the French flag, she suggested, is ridiculous.

There may also be reason for concern regarding residential group treatment. “Putting these young people together is a mistake, because the propaganda of radicalism is an exaltation of the group,” Bouzar told me, suggesting that the centers could reinforce, rather than break down, extremist mindsets. El-Difraoui agreed. “We found out from the Algerians and other experiences, if you put a couple of jihadists together, or former jihadists together, you only need to have one charismatic guy in there who’s lying and cheating, and there we go,” he said. He described the risk of spreading ideology as “contamination,” a concern that has been substantiated in French prisons. “You need to treat them individually,” he said.

Milena Uhlmann, a political scientist currently working on these questions for the German government, observed that the methods that have seemed most promising are those that rely on highly personalized strategies. “It makes sense, as every path into extremism is a unique one. There may be patterns of radicalization, common influencing factors, but the mix is unique; they are part of the person’s biography,” she said. “Hence, there can be no one-size-fits-all way out of extremism.”

Part of the reason there have been so few French deradicalization efforts until now may have to do with the country’s Jacobinian conception of the state. Whereas in Germany and the U.K., for example, civil society takes on a great deal of responsibility, in France, the central government is expected to manage and regulate social interventions. France’s radicalization crisis, however, has spurred the development of new configurations for such efforts. Some of them have been among the country’s most revelatory.

I met Marik Fetouh at the headquarters of Bordeaux’s Centre CAPRI, located behind the arcaded walkways that spread in a tangle off the city’s golden Place Gambetta. CAPRI is a local preventive initiative that is funded with government money but engages a group of local actors — psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, imams — in a collaborative unit supported by a local research association that works on cults. The units are comparable to programs in Vilvoorde, Belgium; Aarhus, Denmark; and the Entr’Autres association in Nice, that seem to have had some success at interrupting the process of radicalization.

CAPRI’s interdisciplinary team arranges to meet each new referral, together with his or her family, to evaluate individual needs. Their recommendations for a “treatment” course usually involve therapy sessions and other emotional or professional assistance. CAPRI is not residential. Fetouh stressed that live-in programs are usually necessary only when the young person must be removed from a toxic family situation or a perilous social network. “We don’t like the word ‘deradicalization,’” Fetouh told me. “It implies passivity, that we are putting new ideas into people’s heads. For us treatment means listening to them, supporting them, making it so that they are the ones asking themselves questions and changing their point of view.” CAPRI has a relatively small budget of $156,000, mostly from the national government.

CAPRI has taken on about 30 cases since it opened in January, and Fetouh is still hesitant to offer a concrete assessment of their work. But he is certain that they are at least making progress in understanding the problem at hand.

“We started out with the idea that religion would play a significant role,” Fetouh told me. They had brought local Muslim community leaders and imams to their team. “Today, the young people who are radicalizing, from what we’ve seen, it’s not because jihad is inscribed in the Quran,” he said. “In general, they don’t know Islam. It’s only young people who are ‘de-Islamized’ — that is to say, from families that are hardly observant or atheist, not even culturally Muslim, kids who don’t know religion or jihad.” A frequent factor they see, he said, is family dysfunction. “They want to leave. They aren’t well here.”

The question is why they continue to believe they will be better off as members of the Islamic State. In late July, a French parliamentary committee published a report finding that the Islamic State was losing strength in almost every aspect — oil revenues, recruits, territorial control — except for its ability to disseminate propaganda. But according to the anthropologist Scott Atran, the Islamic State’s military defeats may enable the group to exhort its followers to ever-greater sacrifice.

And anyone, radical or not, may be willing to make sacrifices in pursuit of a “beautiful life,” as the Danish psychologist Preben Bertelsen has noted. Bertelsen, who has worked on his own country’s deradicalization efforts, has tried to construct a Danish response that keeps this aspiration in mind. Because there is no shortage of obstacles — exclusion, racism, personal problems — that can combine to make a beautiful life seem inaccessible. When that’s the case, Bertelsen said, a person might be liable to seek out alternative means.