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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Can France's new plan counter radicalisation?

Experts say the state's proposals could add to, rather than reduce, fear of terrorism

Muslims leave the Grande Mosque of Paris on May 18, 2018 after the first Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan. Philippe Lopez / AFP Photo
Muslims leave the Grande Mosque of Paris on May 18, 2018 after the first Friday prayers of the holy month of Ramadan. Philippe Lopez / AFP Photo

In the battle for the hearts and minds of French Muslims, confronting radicalisation is among the biggest and most sensitive issues facing government and community leaders.

A 60-point plan unveiled by President Emmanuel Macron's prime minister Edouard Philippe targets prisons, schools and the treatment of fighters – and their children – returning from Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones.

The blueprint for confronting what Mr Philippe called the "threat to our society" posed by extremism imposes unprecedented responsibility on employers, schools and sports clubs to root out radicalised employees, teachers, pupils and members. But he also admitted the government cannot confound the problem alone, and needs to create a common culture of vigilance.

Reinforcing existing measures allowing the dismissal of civil servants or members of the armed forces who arouse suspicion, Mr Macron has ordered officials to identify by the end of June how to spot radicalisation among all public sector workers.

The government believes that while its proposals are not the first of its kind in France, and contain no magic formula, they do comprise a more effective framework for countering a problem that remains despite the much-lauded but still incomplete demise of ISIS.

The plan's main points include school visits from specially trained police officers and pressure on social media providers aim to blunt attempts at radicalisation.

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Initiatives to detect and prevent extremism in places of work, education and sport are attempts to better understand and anticipate how radicalisation develops.

French President Emmanuel Macron pictured on May 30, 2018. Philippe Wojazer /Pool via AP Photo)
French President Emmanuel Macron pictured on May 30, 2018. Philippe Wojazer /Pool via AP Photo)

The government wants a sharper focus on the involvement of health, employment and women's rights agencies. And lastly, improved programmes and psychological support for the re-integration of children of returning fighters – of 68 known cases earlier this year, three quarters were under the age of eight.

The themes build on past initiatives, including a free hotline for the reporting of suspects – but there are also new specific measures. Crucial among these is the creation of 1,500 prison places in units sealed off from other areas of each of six jails around France, for prisoners identified as radicalised.

There have been repeated cases in France, and most recently in neighbouring Belgium with the killing of four people by a convict granted temporary leave from jail, of uneducated delinquents being indoctrinated by fellow inmates.

The first 450 prison places will be created by the end of this year.

After eight weeks of close examination by educators, psychologists and probation officers, selected prisoners will be assessed according to the level of danger they pose and sent either into solitary confinement or, in more worrying cases, into specialised wings.

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Day centres for those under judicial control but not in custody are to be expanded.

In education, the plan will strengthen control over private schools. Fewer than 100 of France's 12,500 private schools – mostly Catholic – are for Muslim children but the number is growing.

Reaction to the plan has ranged from approval of its basic aims to suspicion that its well-meaning recommendations owe more to tinkering with existing procedures than offering a fresh approach.

But some academic and religious observers complain that it goes nowhere near addressing the need for investment in cultural activities, employment and education in the banlieues, the often grim out-of-town suburbs where immigrant families have traditionally settled.

Mohamed Bajrafil, widely seen as one of France's most open-minded and progressive imams, has said the plan deals almost exclusively with defence and security, with hardly a word on what he considers the most effective measure – how to teach people a peaceful Islam.

The British academic and author, Jim Wolfreys, fears France is repeating what he considers were the mistakes of the British government with its anti-radicalisation "Prevent" scheme.

"The French experience shows the degree and impact of Islamophobia can accelerate rapidly under certain conditions," he told The National.

"The 'war on terror' creates the conditions for constructing an 'enemy within'. The Prevent strategy in Britain is a good example of how."

Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan, on May 18, 2018 at the Mosquee Ennour, one of the most important mosques in the city of Le Havre, northwestern France. Charly Triballeau / AFP Photo 
Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan, on May 18, 2018 at the Mosquee Ennour, one of the most important mosques in the city of Le Havre, northwestern France. Charly Triballeau / AFP Photo 

Mr Wolfreys, senior lecturer in French and European politics at King’s College, London, recently published Republic of Islamophobia, a book in which he accuses France of practising "respectable", state-sanctioned racism.

Such an environment has confused an understandable fear of terrorism with a fear of Muslims, hampering understanding of what motivates terrorism and instead fostering feelings of stigmatisation.

"There is a persistent assumption that Muslims' religion defines them above all else, and that this uniform ‘community’ bears a shared responsibility for what anyone claiming affiliation to Islam does," said Mr Wolfreys.

Fabien Truong, an academic who has conducted extensive interviews with friends and relatives of Amedy Coulibaly, an accomplice of the Kouachi brothers who carried out the murders of 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, concurs. Coulibaly was killed when police stormed the Parisian Jewish supermarket where he had already murdered four hostages having earlier shot dead a policewoman.

"Any plan built on the label of deradicalisation takes things on the wrong side of the spectrum," says Mr Truong, associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the University of Paris 8. He is sceptical of the value of banning "Islamist content" in social media, saying hate preachers and ISIS videos are not the causes of the problem but symptoms.

"They are attractive because before them, so many adults have not been able to answer political, metaphysical, aesthetical, cultural, social and economic issues raised by youths," he told The National.

Sadly, he adds, there is a section of that youth that is "sometimes better listened to by some people who are exploiting [their] desires and needs with no educative concerns and an extremist political agenda."

Stigmatising Islam is particularly detrimental, he says, because religion is often the only way to bring back those prone to being recruited as terrorists.

"If we demonise Islam in general, we block these people's way back into a normal life," he said, urging government to spend more on cultural activities and education to help young people of immigrant origin feel less rejected by French society.