By Dr. Patricia Pazos, Director Talking About Terrorism.
France has the highest number of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) in Europe. A total of 1,300 French citizens have traveled to Syria and Iraq, and more than 500 children traveled or were born into conflict zones.
Until 2019, 400 FTFs returned to France. This number is extremely high, evidenced through the fact that only 3 European countries (UK, Germany, and France) have repatriated more than 300 FTFs at this time. 400 French citizens, including approximately 150 children, remain in Syria, primarily within the Kurdish Zones. The French Government estimates that hundreds of FTFs have died in conflict zones, but the numbers are not reliable since it is challenging to confirm their deaths.
A significant number of FTFs have successfully left conflict zones to travel to South East Asia and Afghanistan.
The prosecution process of FTFs in France has evolved throughout the last 7 years. The French Government has strengthened the trial process and now promotes fair trials in Iraq. The government also decides on a case-by-case basis whether they should bring back a foreign fighter.
One recent public opinion poll showed that people believe 82% of jihadists should be prosecuted in Iraq and Syria or in Middle Eastern countries.
The decision to repatriate minors is made on a case-by-case basis. The French Government makes a differentiation between children under 8 years old and children under 13 years old. Children under 8 are all considered to be victims. Once they are repatriated, they are separated from their families and are transferred to other family members (if possible) or placed in foster homes that closely monitor their reintegration. Children between 8 and 13 are examined with more scrutiny on a case-by-case basis, but they are not considered criminally liable.
Men and women are both prosecuted. Before 2016, women were not directly prosecuted, but after a terrorist attempt by a group of women in Paris, the French Government changed the procedures.
In recent years, French antiterrorism law has become increasingly severe and some experts have accused the country of undercutting human rights and freedoms. The first foreign fighters in the country were charged with minor penalties, but terrorists now can be charged with up to 30 years in prison, or a life sentence for major terrorist leaders. There are different degrees of confinement dependent on the level of the penalty, with solitary confinement being regarded as the highest ‘regime’.
At this time, France has 500 terrorist detainees and 160 returnees. Of the 500 French detainees, 70 will be released before 2022.
France is fighting terrorism following a multilevel approach, involving all the bodies and agencies in the country and in the EU as well as reinforcing internal security. But a better investment in intelligence sources is needed in order to monitor those individuals still radicalized and actively recruiting and/or operating in the country, neighbor countries and/or conflict zones.