Inside France's deradicalisation 'boot camp'

France begins opening its first deradicalisation centres, leaving villagers worried about safety and critics debating the method

Sky News, UK/September 13, 2016

By Mark White

French officials have promised all possible security measures to safeguard a rural French community, as preparations get underway to open the country's first deradicalisation centre in the Loire Valley.

Villagers in the tiny community of Beaumont-en-Véron have voiced alarm at the plans for the centre, which will house up to 25 young men and women judged by authorities to be heading towards violent extremism.

More than a dozen similar centres will open over the coming months across France, as the government there tries to grapple with a growing extremist problem which has seen a spate of recent terror attacks.

French security officials have revealed that more than 15,000 individuals have been classed as extremist and could pose a threat to national security.

Touring the first new centre in Beaumont-en-Véron on Tuesday, France's head of deradicalisation acknowledged the security concerns of local villagers, but said appropriate precautions would be taken.

Muriel Domenach told Sky News that local police and security officials were not embarking on this new approach naively and would be keeping a close eye on the facility, a refurbished chateaux on the outskirts of the village.

She added: "We don't claim that this is a one-size-fits-all sort of response. But it's a different approach.

"Radicalisation has brought a phenomenon now being faced by many countries, each with their own ways of fighting against crime.

"The most irresponsible act would be doing nothing."

The new centres mark a radical shift in approach by the French in tackling extremism.

The model is similar to US style boot-camps and will employ a regimented structure which will see the centre's residents wearing uniforms and rising by 6:45 each morning.

They then face a full day of activities, including educational classes, cultural lessons and exercise sessions.

The residents will also be expected to sing the French national anthem.

Officials say the initiative builds on a similar successful scheme, which has seen many young men and women diverted from criminal activity.

But some deradicalisation experts have voiced concern about the difficulty of transferring a criminal justice model to dealing with extremism.

Dr Erin Saltman, a counter extremism researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the French approach was markedly different from that taken by other countries such as the UK and Denmark.

"In France this is actually much more of a militaristic approach to deradicalisation.

"It's not very holistic.

"It's treating the entire group as one uniformed group that should go through this process, so it's actually quite different to what we're seeing elsewhere in Europe."

In the UK, the Government's Prevent strategy is aimed at offering one-on-one mentoring and is tailored to the specific needs of an individual.

Dr Saltman said the UK approach is not perfect but would appear to be a more workable approach than the one adopted by the French.

"The potential problems that we see with this sort of militaristic approach is that it's not actually taking into consideration the specific drivers, the push and pull factors for the individual.

"We know that people have very different reasons for joining violent extremist and terrorist organisations and when you look at Denmark, or even the UK - when we approach radicalisation - it's assessing the individual first and trying to work with that individual on their needs.

"This approach is not doing that. It's really treating everyone with one broad brush stroke, and that's potentially dangerous."

The deradicalisation centres are a response to growing calls for a more concerted approach to tackling the extremism threat in France.

For many they don't go far enough; but for those who'll have to live next to them, there is understandable nervousness that the fight against violent extremism is just a bit too close to home.

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