France retools anti-extremism efforts after public failures

France's attempts to counter the radicalization of its young people are in turmoil, with a group home intended to turn them away from Islamic extremism empty, the head of a highly publicized nonprofit convicted of misuse of public funds, and plans to segregate prison inmates suspected of harboring jihadi ideas abandoned.

The results are both disappointing and unsurprising, according to a French senator who co-wrote a recent report highly critical of an effort she says was devised in haste and has been a waste of money.

"We spread money around because we didn't have time and we had to communicate something, we had to show something," Sen. Esther Benbassa, whose report last month concluded that the country's de-radicalization efforts so far were largely ineffective, said. "The time that this takes to work is long, very long."

The backtracking takes on added significance as recent attacks, including last week's rampage in London and the previous week's attempted on soldiers at Paris' Orly airport, were carried out by ex-convicts who may have been radicalized behind bars.

France is not the only country reconsidering how it responds to radicalization. Britain's contentious Prevent program, which seeks to identify residents at risk of being radicalized, has come under criticism by rights groups and an expert for the United Nations who said it stifles free speech.

France's experiments with preventing radicalization were conceived during a literal state of emergency following the extremist attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher supermarket in January 2015 and the Paris bombings and shootings that left 130 dead 10 months later. The ad hoc attempts focused on the prison system, a key incubator for many would-be jihadis, and programs that tried to target those already on the path to extremism.

They did not go as hoped.

Sonia Imloul, the former head of a de-radicalization program that had support of the French Interior Ministry, was convicted of misuse of funds this month after trial testimony showed she had government funds for the organization deposited directly into her account.

Imloul received a four-month suspended prison sentence, although her lawyer says the 60,000 euros ($65,000) she received from the government was a drop in the bucket for what the program needed. The program operated out of an apartment and used university students instead of trained professionals to counsel families of young people who had left for Syria, according to the trial testimony.

Meanwhile, in February, the last occupant of a residential program in the Loire Valley wine country that was meant to rehabilitate extremists was convicted of advocating terrorism.

Residents of the area, who were promised before the group home opened in September that none of the occupants posed a danger, were infuriated to learn that one young man was linked to the same jihadi network as one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Bataclan concert hall in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015.

With a capacity of 25, the manor house never had more than nine voluntary participants at any given time since it launched in September. It's now empty and the government is focusing its resources on prevention, hoping that will prove more effective — or at least not counter-productive.

In the northern city of Lens, 600 local high school students recently were bused to the Colisee theater to watch a live performance of "Djihad," a play about three young Muslims who come to regret their decision to go to Syria but who also feel rejected by Europe.

The play, which uses comedy to reach an audience often impervious to preaching adults, opened days before the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher grocery store. It has been running continuously ever since. Its current home theater is in Paris, across the street from La Bonne Biere bar, which was attacked in November 2015.

Playwright Ismail Saidi is a native of the Molenbeek neighborhood in Brussels that was home to many of the attackers who struck Paris that night, including the ringleader of the Islamic State cell and the only attacker known to have survived, now awaiting trial in France.

"There is not one single solution, because each of these people is a particular case. Each one has his own path that led him to this place," Florian Chauvet, one of the lead actors in "Djihad," said. "It's a question of what French society is failing to provide to these young people that they say 'My life has no meaning here, so I'm going to try to find meaning in my death.'"

The hope is that the story will raise doubts in the minds of anyone considering the same course, but the essential problem is measuring success, said Muriel Domenach, who leads the new effort to reboot France's anti-radicalization initiative.

France has seen more of its citizens join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq than anywhere else in Europe. The main way to measure if the country is making progress in its fight to change that is the rapid decline in young people leaving, said Domenach, who was the consul general for France in Istanbul when French departures were at their height.

For now, though, she attributes the drop as much to the Islamic State group's war zone losses as anything else.

"The best counter-narrative is military victory, to start with. With military victory, Daesh would lose a lot of its dark allure," she said, referring to the group by its Arabic acronym.

France continues to monitor 2,400 people it considers at risk for radicalization and 1,000 families. Domenach is prioritizing community youth centers and respected local figures instead of down counter-narrative from the state to reach young people long before they turn against their country. Once they do, she said, it is all but too late.

"I'm not a strong believer in de-radicalization. I'm not a strong believer in deprogramming someone," she said. "I don't think that such a thing as creating a new man or a new woman ever worked. I don't think you make someone come back to the way they were."

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