PARIS—As it confronts the threat of home-grown jihadist violence, the French government unveiled on Tuesday its latest security initiative: a “deradicalization center” aimed at the young people most susceptible to terrorist calls for domestic violence.
After three major attacks in the past two years — as well as the Brussels attack in March, allegedly perpetrated by the same terrorist cell that orchestrated the November 2015 attack on Paris — French authorities are confronting what many here consider the most confounding reality of this new wave of domestic terrorism. In each case, the vast majority of the suspects involved have held French or European passports and have targeted their fellow citizens.
More than 230 people have died in terrorist violence in France since the January 2015 attack on the office of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, and the country remains under an official state of emergency. The French government estimates that terrorist networks have radicalized approximately 9,300 young people in France.
The first of the government’s new centers — officially known as the Center for the Prevention, Integration and Citizenship — will open at the end of September in an 18th-century chateau in the town of Beaumont-en-Véron, a small community of 2,900 nestled in the scenic Loire Valley, approximately 180 miles south of Paris.
The Chateau de Pontourny facility will be the first of 12 similar centers to open in each of France’s departmental regions, hosting a maximum of 25 individuals ages 18 to 30. The government’s hope is that as many as 3,600 radicalized individuals will enter these deradicalization centers in the next two years.
During a tour of the facility, Interior Ministry officials told select French media outlets that admission to the center will be purely “voluntary” and not by government order, focusing on those radicalized individuals “looking for a way out.”
On social media, French journalists invited on the tour posted images of the inside of the converted chateau, revealing dormitory rooms that resembled those inhabited by many American college freshmen, as well as common spaces decorated in kindergarten colors.
Officials said that the program in this and future facilities will consist of a 6:45 a.m. wake-up call, followed by a ceremonial salute of the French flag and a series of courses in French history, religion and philosophy — in addition to time for athletics.
“We can only fight against terrorism by respecting the principles of the Republic,” France’s interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, told France Inter radio Wednesday morning.
An Interior Ministry official quoted in France’s Figaro newspaper said the program is slated to last 10 months, a period the official described as “Republican gestation.” The Interior Ministry declined to provide further comment Wednesday.
The government’s initiative has engendered its share of critics.
Perhaps most vocally, a number of local residents protested the preview of the facility on Tuesday, telling local media that the new center in their community could easily become a target for a future attack by the Islamic State.
Additionally, a number of analysts — especially mental-health professionals — have also criticized the plan, insisting that the French government is merely experimenting without any clearly defined method or guarantee of success. Even members of the center’s steering committee have expressed their skepticism.
In an interview, Gérald Bronner, a sociologist on the government’s committee and the author of “Extreme Thought: How Ordinary Men Become Radicals,” said that the notion of “deradicalization” itself was flawed.
“It means that you can take an idea or a belief out of the brain, and I think that’s just impossible,” Bronner said. “Nobody in the history of psychology — nobody — has succeeded.”
“What we have to try is not a kind of mental manipulation but the opposite — mind liberation, a strengthening of their intellectual immune systems,” he said. “And it’s they who will have to do that themselves.”