After several months operation without any clients, the French Pontourny De-Radicalization Centre will be closed. The last resident was arrested in January for providing support to terrorists, and has now been sentenced to four months in prison.
The Pontourny De-Radicalization Centre was opened with great fanfare in October 2016. Up to 25 young “volunteers” at a time would take a ten month break from their home environment. They would be able to clear their heads, get a different perspective, and hopefully turn their life around. It was hoped this type of approach may reduce the horrifying rate of terror attacks in Europe.
The €2.5 million centre, which sits in a renovated castle, was to be the first of 12 “centres of reintegration and citizenship” built all around France. Thirty full time staff would service the centre, and provide diverse educational and cultural opportunities. Education would be provided on topics including religion, history, philosophy, the media and the Internet. Each volunteer would be assigned individual medical, social and psychological assistance, depending on their needs. They would have a choice of sports and creative activities to undertake and spend their time preparing for re-integration.
Local residents expressed concern about the presence of the centre, and formed an organisation to oppose it. They were concerned that it would bring dangerous radicals into the community, and were skeptical of the effectiveness. The de-radicalization program was very similar to that in French prisons, where it isn’t renowned for its effectiveness.
Administrators attempted to assuage residents’ concerns by discussing security arrangements; windows are barred to discourage escape, and the centre is surrounded by a network of cameras and infra-red sensors. Police could be onsite within minutes.
In the end though, it wasn’t the similarity to a prison which caused the centre to close down, it was the difference. Contrary to expectations, young Muslim extremists were unwilling to volunteer for what looked a lot like a ten-month prison sentence. The Prefect admitted as much when discussing the centres closure:
“The difficulty of identifying people in the process of radicalization, who would be able to meet the criteria and especially that they are voluntary to go there. There are no volunteers. There was an initial misjudgment, which consisted in overestimating the ability of the prefects to ensure that these radicalizing individuals were willing to integrate this type of structure. The goodwill of these people has been overestimated and the difficulty has been underestimated in order to make the centre work.”
The Pontourny Centre was just one component of Frances de-radicalization strategies. The country has spent €100 million on subsidized organisations over the last three years, and needs to methodically evaluate them, according to Senators Esther Benbassa and Catherine Troendlé. The senators have write a major report suggesting changes in the strategy.
Notably, they want to avoid the incarceration of radicalized minors for whom jail “can have counterproductive effects”. 17 minors are currently in pre-trial detention on terrorism cases, and the senators would like to keep them out of jail. They advocate instead the use of “educational apartments”. Three such apartments are currently being trailed in Paris. Each host a single radicalised minor, monitored by an educator, and a counselled by a therapist. Unfortunately, an estimate of the cost per radical is not immediately available. It was also unclear whether the senators 100-page strategy report considered the option of deporting extremists.