Prayer and the flag

The “deradicalization” centers, opened with great fanfare in 2016, quickly collapsed. A book looks back at the dead ends of this ambition, which claimed to replace religious fanaticism with military discipline.

In July 2016, the very first French “deradicalization” center opened its doors in Beaumont-en-Véron, in Indre-et-Loire. Named “prevention, integration and citizenship center” (CPIC), the establishment is brandished by the executive as the symbol of its determined action in the fight against jihadism. The subject of intense media coverage, the center, designed as a pilot experiment, is intended to constitute the first link in some fifteen structures spread across the entire national territory. However, barely a year after its opening, the project is definitively abandoned. During this period of time, it has concentrated severe criticism from the political and media fields to the point of becoming the glaring illustration of the government’s failure in terms of “deradicalization.”

These critiques have focused on what the center claimed to do, neglecting in fact what it actually did, due to its inaccessibility to researchers or the press. The book by A. Alber, J. Cabalion and V. Cohen fills this gap by proposing to shed light on the daily functioning of the CPIC. Such an investigation, based on a series of interviews and observations conducted among the agents of the center, is edifying in two respects. First, because it restores a highly publicized experience that gave rise to intense debates largely marked by their speculative character. Second, because it provides solid arguments regarding some of the dead ends inherent in the ambition of “deradicalization.”

From theories to practice

The first part of the book returns to the construction of the public problem of radicalization and the response methods envisaged to curb it. After a brief detour on the French genesis of the “fight against radicalization”, now well documented, the authors evoke the development of competing etiologies aiming to understand and fight against radicalization. Without settling the theoretical quarrels, the instigators of the CPIC seem to have opted for a mixed approach combining a cognitive-behavioral approach, the establishment of a military-inspired discipline, psychological monitoring and an attempt at professional reintegration. This heterogeneity of analyses and methods will partly lead to the conflicts of approaches that will become apparent as these different theories become embodied in professional practices.

The authors then trace the genesis of the CPIC. The public authorities, wishing to set up a deradicalization center on the national territory, are struggling to find a site capable of hosting the project. The mobilization of specialized educators opposing the closure of an educational and professional training center (CEFP) in Beaumont-en-Véron will be seized as a godsend: “the choice of the site (…) made it possible to kill two birds with one stone: to save jobs in exchange for the acceptance, by local elected officials, of a project that no one wanted in the area” (p. 61). Some of the educators are integrated into the new project, while the management of the establishment is entrusted to a duo including a former soldier, the two executives having previously worked together in establishments for integration into employment (EPIDE). They will try to impose a martial-inspired discipline in the center (wearing of uniforms, weekly flag raising, recitation of the Marseillaise, etc.). If all the agents initially integrated into the CPIC feel invested with a mission of public interest, the ethos diverge widely: the specialist educators are the bearers of an educational approach which is opposed to the disciplinary conception supported by the management team. It is easy to imagine the tensions generated by the cohabitation of agents carrying such antagonistic approaches.

An impossible mission

The second part of the book focuses on the difficulties experienced by the center’s agents in carrying out a mission that had become largely impossible. It must be said that the context of great precipitation in which the CPIC is launched significantly complicates daily work. Initially designed to accommodate volunteers “on the path to radicalization”, but not subject to legal proceedings, the center struggles to attract candidates aspiring to their “deradicalization”. From then on, “the volunteering of the “beneficiaries” was generally a fiction that fit into the general narrative proposed by the project” (p. 84). In fact, recruitment is based on blackmail by the prefectural cells and is based on “forced volunteering” (p. 85). Quickly eager to leave the center, the residents are retained by different means, while the spectrum of profiles welcomed widens to include young people suffering from sometimes severe psychiatric disorders, for whom “radicalization” does not appear obvious to professionals.

Added to this are the demonstrations of distrust from local residents, who view the arrival of these new neighbors with suspicion. As the authors note, “fears were intertwined: while the neighborhood feared that the young people would commit violent acts around the center, the staff were very worried about a possible intrusion into its grounds” (p. 95). The intense media coverage of the center and the mobilizations of local residents, combined with the wearing of uniforms by residents, which makes them easily identifiable, complicate their integration into the local landscape. But above all, the daily life of the CPIC is marked by three cross-cutting tensions: the relationship maintained with the potential danger of the residents, the place given to religious fact and the role conferred on republican decorum.

The dangerousness of the residents, first of all, arouses serious concerns when the employees take up their posts. The center’s agents initially anticipate the management of particularly dangerous populations requiring constant vigilance. This results in an unusual level of care in social work, based on the extreme limitation of personal information disclosed and the lack of knowledge of the individual files of the populations taken into care. The initial fears seem to have gradually faded, the paradox being that, as the authors note, the few violent incidents that occurred are quickly buried by the management, probably for fear that their media coverage would accentuate the bad press to which the center was already subjected.

The second tension lies in the place given to religion. Initially, the practice of faith, without being strictly forbidden, is not particularly encouraged — or even significantly complicated by a schedule that leaves little room for moments of worship. “By doing nothing to support religious practice on a daily basis, the project’s designers seem to have initially considered it as a form of addiction that could have been treated by gradual withdrawal leading to abstinence, like a detox cure” (p. 126). The residents quickly multiply the breaches of the rules and set up religious practice frameworks for themselves, pushing the agents to “hunt down prayer” (p. 126). Noting the impasse of a strict ban, the agents of the CPIC end up recruiting a chaplain. The latter is brought in to guide the religious practice of the residents, but also to engage in the reform of their religiosity.

Finally, the last tension lies in the role given to military decorum and patriotic rites. Wearing a uniform, raising a flag or reciting the national anthem are all symbols that are difficult for special educators to accept, who struggle to find an educational meaning in them. Added to this is the disciplinary framework imposed by management, which uses a pedagogy based on authority and intimidation, which some educators will equate with mistreatment. Two conceptions of “deradicalization” are emerging and are strengthening between educators, followers of ordinary educational work marked by a relationship of trust and the development of a critical mind, and followers of a militarized formula of social work involving the learning of a history of France without rough edges, and punctuated by the practice of collective rites.

A jurisdictional struggle between social and martial approaches

These tensions lead to what the authors call a “war of positions”, studied in the third part of the book. Thus, the management of the center seems to have tried, not without success, to push out the specialized educators who were resistant to military discipline. The successive departure of many agents contributes to the renewal of the educational team. The new arrivals tend to be less qualified, do not have the diploma of specialized educator, are less recalcitrant to patriotic decorum and closer to the management. What is then played out within the CPIC which the authors, very aptly mobilizing the interpretative framework proposed by Andrew Abbott, analyze as a jurisdictional struggle between two conceptions of the same mission.

This conflict, which leads to the eviction and marginalization of specialized educators, produces intense situations of unease. The description of the in many respects grotesque character of the CPICwhich may bring a smile to the reader’s face, gives way to often poignant accounts of suffering. Ethical suffering first, based on the employees’ feeling of having been mistreating themselves towards the residents they wanted to help. Suffering from poorly done work then, characterized by the impression of having seen one’s work prevented by the respect of constraints and protocols preventing any reflexivity on professional practices deemed questionable. Finally, collective closeting, as soon as the last residents leave the CPIC and that the project is slowly dying, waiting for a reopening that will never happen.

Through the magnifying glass of “deradicalization”

The history of the CPIC is both unusual and relatively classic. Unusual, because few projects have generated such strong political support and such intense media coverage. But launched for political communication requirements, the project rested on a precarious balance. This particular context, write the authors, “sheds light on many of the impasses encountered by the teams: impossible success, due to all the ambiguities of its program, but impossible failure, to protect the credibility of the executive” (p. 229). The consequences of this impasse on the health of employees only hint at their effects on the residents of the center, engaged in spite of themselves in an immense political communication enterprise.

Classic, because the distorting prism of this founding experience illuminates some of the dead ends that cut across the fight against radicalization. The vagueness of the instructions maintained by a lack of a stable definition of radicalization, the tension between an educational approach and a repressive ambition, and the ambiguity of the relationship to religious fact, constantly oscillating between a lack of support and an attempt to rehabilitate souls, are in this respect so many shared characteristics, which create the conditions for the malaise of agents engaged in the fight against radicalization.