French ‘De-radicalisation’ Boot Camps: Will They Work?

On 13 September 2016, France ‘unveiled’ its first of twelve ‘deradicalisation boot camps‘, one for each region of the country. The Centres for Prevention, Integration, and Citizenship are part of a €40 million (£34m) government effort to combat home-grown extremism. The twelve centres will be home to a range of individuals, including ‘hardened radicals who have recently come back from Syria or been released from prison‘. The French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced the centres in April 2015, stating the aim is ‘disengagement from radicalization, development of a critical mind, and appropriation of citizenship and of republican values’. The first to open is located in the Loire Valley outside of the town Beaumont en Veron, located roughly 290km south of Paris. The 18th century Chateau de Pontourny was a former residence for foreign minors without guardians.

Image courtesy of Olivier Ortelpa © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Olivier Ortelpa © 2013, some rights reserved.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls has stated that as many as 15,000 people in the state are ‘on the radar of police and intelligence services because they are suspected of being radicalized, while 1,350 are under investigation – 293 because of alleged links with a terrorism network‘. France remains in a ‘state of emergency after more than 230 people were killed in a series of terrorist attacks since January 2015‘. France is not the first country to respond to extremism with de-radicalisation centres, as Germany has also developed a ‘deradicalisation programme’ to deal with neo-Nazis and the extreme right.

Friends, family, and individuals in the justice system will refer people they suspect are at risk of radicalization to the centre through the helplines such as Stop-Djihadisme and Numéro Vert. These hotlines have proved to be popular, with Numéro Vert accepting 4,600 calls over two years. The residents of this first centre would volunteer to participate and would ‘never [have] been convicted for acts linked to radicalization‘ or terrorism. Muriel Domenach, France’s anti-extremism tsar, asserts the centre is for ‘re-engagement and re-integration… to support young people who are cut off from their family and friends, and ‘rescue them before they fall off the edge into radicalism‘. Domenach was quick to add: ‘We don’t claim that this is a one-size-fits-all sort of response‘. Officials stressed that the selection would be on a ‘voluntary’ basis from among candidates who have been radicalised but ‘are looking for a way out‘, after questions arose about these centres infringing upon individual liberties. France’s Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, answered this by saying, ‘We can only fight against terrorism by respecting the principles of the Republic‘.

This specific first centre can house twenty-five individuals, aged from 18 to 30, starting next month. After ten months, they may receive visits from their families and opportunities for work experience. An Interior Ministry Official described these ten months as a period of ‘Republican gestation‘. The inhabitants first activity will be the raising of the French flag at 6:45AM, and wear uniforms to classes on French history, religion, media, and philosophy while receiving ‘medical and psychological support‘. This strict structure is perhaps why many call the centres ‘US style boot-camps‘. Part of this structure includes all residents singing La Marseillaise while saluting the French flag once a week. During allotted free time, the residents can participate in a variety of activities including “sport, capoeira, slam poetry, and horse therapy.” Religious activities including “prayers and the wearing of the veil” are only allowed to occur in private bedrooms during the occupant’s spare time. Computers will only be available for educational purposes, although a French interior ministry official scoffed at the Internet connection saying it would “be strictly pedagogical and anyway… the signal here is terrible” in a typically French fashion. The rooms look like halls of residence with single beds and little storage, and the common spaces are decorated with primary colours as if for a school. This program was designed with the help of Grenoble sociologist, Gerald Bronner with the aim to “open their minds and strengthen their intellectual immunity to extremist ideology.” It is widely hoped that these centres will process and aid 3600 individuals within the next two years.

The location of the centre has caused great concern amongst locals. One went so far as to claim, ‘we may be outside the cage, on this side of the fence, but we feel like the guinea pigs‘. The leader of the local protest group, Michel Carrier harbours concerns that the centre would become a target for jihadists. Many locals question how they will be protected as the jihadist accountable for taking 90 lives on Bastille Day ‘had no criminal record‘. Others are concerned the centres are a mere ‘window dressing‘ before France’s 2017 Presidential elections. The Mayor of Beaumont en Veron dismissed the concerns of locals as ‘irrational‘ and gave details of security measures. However, he added that ‘There’s no such thing as zero risk but we must help these young people somehow’. Domenach validates this by saying, ‘The most dangerous and irresponsible action, would be to do nothing‘. Like many European countries, France’s ‘far-right wing ha[s] gained incredible momentum in recent times of heightened terror concern‘.

This plan has been widely criticized by analysts, including members of the centre’s committee and mental health professionals, who point out there is no proof it will succeed. The charter for the centre recognizes that it is ‘experimental‘, which gives hope the government is open to improving its counter-terrorism plan. Bronner himself admits that the term ‘deradicalization’ is flawed. He says, ‘It means that you can take an idea or a belief out of the brain, and I think that’s just impossible… Nobody in the history of psychology – nobody – has succeeded‘. With these doubts cast, this experiment may prove that it may be more viable for the government to aim for ‘disengagement’ of these individuals, meaning having the residents ‘renounce violence‘ rather than getting them to renounce their ‘extremist beliefs’.