In the Loire valley, an eighteenth-century castle attracted much attention a couple of years ago, when it became home to France’s only deradicalisation centre. The experience at the Château de Pontourny was a blueprint for thirteen planned ‘centres for prevention, integration and citizenship’ across the country. It was intended to show an impatient French public that the government was promptly tackling homegrown radicalisation at its roots, when the country was just recovering from a series of terrorist attacks mostly perpetrated by French or European nationals.
But last summer the castle officially shut its gates, putting an end to this short-lived experiment after less than a year. The announcement did not come as a surprise to anyone: the centre never benefitted from much support despite its highly publicised opening.
Unfortunately, this is no exception in French deradicalisation policies, which include a range of measures from association with local social workers to incarceration. Since the first governmental effort to address the issue of radicalisation in late 2014, the story has been one of failures and scandals – including embezzlement of public funds by the president of an NGO earlier this year. A bipartisan senate committee released a report in mid-July, neatly summarising the various efforts of the government and offering ten propositions of reforms. One of them called for the end of the Pontourny experiment – “a resounding failure”.
The Pontourny centre was designed as a voluntary programme for young people aged 18 to 25 who had not committed any crime but considered themselves radicalised. Empty since February, Pontourny was meant to welcome 25 residents at full capacity. Instead, it never saw more than nine and none of them completed the programme until the end. Muriel Domenach, secretary general of the interministerial committee for prevention of crime and radicalisation (CIPDR) which oversaw the running of the centre, said it quickly became difficult to find participants: she blames the programme’s voluntary nature and calls for policy-makers to “learn from experiments”.
But, according to Sarah Marsden, whose work at Lancaster University focuses on processes of deradicalisation, the challenge lies in the residential model which “involves a significant disruption to clients’ lives” and “may undermine the chances that people will remain engaged for the full term.”
Pressure from public opinion seems to have driven all deradicalisation policies in France, leading to the rapid adoption of policies meant to reassure rather than effective thought-through strategies.
One resident in particular drew much controversy when the police arrested him on charge of terrorism-related activities during a granted leave. This further supported the case of locals who strongly opposed the presence of potentially dangerous individuals in their neighbourhood, the other major cause for the failure of the experiment.
In fact, pressure from public opinion seems to have driven all deradicalisation policies in France, leading to the rapid adoption of policies meant to reassure rather than effective thought-through strategies. According to Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at the Ecole des hautes études en Sciences Sociales, only a ten-year plan would allow for a coherent strategy. Unfortunately, such a continuity is impossible at government level, and the public’s impatience to see results doesn’t allow for much experiment, seen as a luxury in uncertain times.
The case of France is “caricatural” for the rest of Europe.
Indeed, the French strategy is in its infancy since the government only started paying attention to homegrown radicalisation in the autumn 2014, despite France seeing its first nationals leave for Syria and Irak in 2012. Most European countries, on the other hand, started experimenting with deradicalisation more than a decade ago. While the scale of the phenomenon is new territory for everyone, Mr Khosrokhavar calls the case of France “caricatural” for the rest of Europe.
The Pontourny experiment highlights the difficulties and incertitudes surrounding the multifaceted process of deradicalisation. The concept itself remains hazy: “like most experts, I don’t think it is possible to deprogramme someone” says Ms Domenach, echoing the French government’s call to move away from the term deradicalisation, favouring instead ‘desindoctrination’ and ‘reinsertion’. While experts, policy-makers and practitioners alike emphasise the necessity to try and fail in experimenting with various strategies, coordinating these efforts at a European level would be much more effective.
Last year, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron announced plans for a joint strategy between Britain and France to counter internet radicalisation. This is a start. But if France is to catch up in the fight against radicalisation, it needs to actively learn from and coordinate with its slightly more experienced European neighbours — in particular Denmark.
Radicalisation reflects the failure of integration at many levels of our societies. While it can take multiple forms, and reflect various ideologies, the phenomenon is one that can only benefit from more shared knowledge and experience. Countering extremism also starts with understanding its roots and facing previous errors. Done at a European level, this could only lead to more effective results — and who knows? maybe also to a much needed re-assessment of the values we call European ideals.