PARIS — A bipartisan report in the French Senate minced no words in describing this country’s efforts to “deradicalize” former and future terrorists.
The French government’s attempt — including the controversial opening of a deradicalization center in the middle of the countryside — was a “total fiasco,” in the words of Philippe Bas, a senator from the center-right Republicans party.
Among the most damning elements in the report was a firm condemnation of the planned network of 12 deradicalization centers, perhaps the most widely publicized — and criticized — element of the government’s push to combat homegrown extremism.
A wave of terrorist violence — perpetrated mostly by French or European Union passport holders — has claimed the lives of 230 people in France since January 2015, and the Socialist administration of François Hollande has struggled to improvise a solution to the problem.
The deradicalization centers — officially called Centers for Prevention, Integration and Citizenship — were meant to impose rigorous routines on those they housed, as well as to subject them to intense courses in French history and philosophy. As Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said while serving as interior minister last fall at the opening of the first center: “We can only fight against terrorism by respecting the principles of the Republic.”
But five months later, only one of 12 planned centers has opened, and that one — in an 18th-century chateau deep in the scenic Loire Valley — is empty.
“This failure fully illustrates the lack of evaluation of the mechanisms set up by the state in the area of taking responsibility for radicalization and the lack of a comprehensive prevention strategy,” Catherine Troendlé, a senator from the Republicans who signed the report, said in a statement.
The report concluded that the programs had been designed hastily without proper due diligence.
“Despite their goodwill, several associations, seeking public funding in times of fiscal shortage, turned to the deradicalization sector without any real experience,” said Esther Benbassa, a senator from the left-wing Europe Ecology party, another of the report’s authors. This, she added, created an unfortunate “business of deradicalization.”
The French security establishment had long criticized the government’s deradicalization effort as too little too late, a knee-jerk reaction designed to put an increasingly anxious electorate at ease.
“It’s impossible to deradicalize individuals,” Jean-Charles Brisard, a French intelligence expert and director of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, said in an interview.
“We all believe that the best thing to do is to act instead with preventive measures, rather than trying to change the minds of people after the fact,” he said, citing as a potential model the example of Britain, which practices a more holistic technique at the local level.
“You need the involvement of every single actor at the local level — schools, religious leaders, social services, police, municipalities,” Brisard said. “We’ve taken some of these initiatives but in general what we have is still insufficient and, indeed, weak.”
Hollande suffered a historic decline in popularity — due, in part, to the terrorist attacks that have occurred during his tenure. He announced in December that he will not seek reelection in the forthcoming presidential elections in April and May.
In the final months before the vote, national security issues — as well as the increasingly Islamophobic rhetoric of France’s far-right — remain at the center of political debate.