France toughens stance on combating radicalism in prisons and schools

Prison guards blocking access to a Marseille prison in January during a demonstration as part of a nationwide movement to call for better safety, after a violent rampage by a radical Islamist inmate.
Prison guards blocking access to a Marseille prison in January during a demonstration as part of a nationwide movement to call for better safety, after a violent rampage by a radical Islamist inmate.

PARIS • France has unveiled a tough new anti-Islamist policy for its prisons and schools, confronting a lingering threat that is likely to intensify as radicalised fighters return from Syria.

For now, perhaps the greatest menace is in the country's prisons, and it is there that the government of President Emmanuel Macron is concentrating its fire, with the changes announced on Friday aimed at isolating hundreds of radicalised inmates.

More than 1,600 inmates are jailed on terrorism charges or have been identified as radicalised.

The government now wants to separate and isolate them from other inmates - a shift from past strategy in which they were more likely to be dispersed among other prisoners. But officials now say that approach instead spread radicalism and threatened the security of guards, who went on a nationwide strike after a violent rampage by a radical Islamist inmate last month. The changes are in part a response to the strike, which paralysed France's prisons.

In addition to the prison measures, France will more closely scrutinise the licensing of certain types of private, religiously oriented schools, which are often identified with the spread of radicalisation. Some 74,000 students attend these schools.

"Islamist radicalisation threatens our society, and not only when it leads to violence," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in Lille on Friday, as he announced the measures.

"It challenges us every time the laws of the Republic come up against religious precepts," he added, "every time a woman finds herself, voluntarily or not, put in a situation of exclusion or inferiority obviously incompatible with constitutional principles of liberty and equality."

The strategy unveiled by Mr Philippe represents a toughening of the government's attitude as compared with that of the previous Socialist government, which emphasised deradicalisation. That effort was seen as a failure after a deradicalisation centre, opened by officials in the Loire region in 2016, wound up taking in only nine people for 25 slots, all of whom were soon gone.

"I find that term particularly inappropriate," Mr Philippe said of the word "deradicalisation". "Nobody has the magic formula for 'deradicalisation in the sense where you can deprogram a dangerous software."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 25, 2018, with the headline 'France toughens stance on combating radicalism in prisons and schools'. Print Edition | Subscribe