Gavin Mortimer

France’s dilemma: what to do with jihadists who say sorry

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Patrick Jardin lost his daughter when Islamist terrorists attacked the Bataclan in November 2015. Nathalie was one of 130 people killed that evening in Paris and her father still pays her mobile phone charges so that he can hear her voice on her answer message. For Jardin, time has healed nothing. He spearheaded a successful campaign to prevent the controversial rapper Medine from appearing at the Bataclan last year. And in the interviews he gives, such as this one to Liberation, he directs his anger in many directions. Some of it against himself, for failing to "protect" his daughter, some against the killers, but most is channelled into a visceral loathing for the political class, which he accuses of being the real assassins.

Jardin reacted in fury last week when he learned that the French government is organising the return of an estimated 130 people who allegedly served the Islamic State in some capacity before being captured by Kurdish forces. The French justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, explained that the government had reversed its earlier decision permitting its captured jihadists to be tried by local authorities. "We’ve made a choice, which is that we prefer control, which means a return to France," she said. Some of those who will be repatriated are children, added Belloubet, with many under the age of seven. "These are children who were born over there or left France very young with their parents."

Christophe Castaner, the French interior minister, said that the volte-face was a result of America's decision to withdraw its troops from Syria. It was a choice of bringing them back to France or risking allowing them to go free. "There are currently people in prison who are being held because the Americans are there and they are going to be released," he said. "They will want to come back to France...they are French before being jihadists."

On hearing the news, Jardin tweeted that the jihadists and their offspring should be "shot", as French members of the Waffen SS had been in 1945 when they were caught by French soldiers. He's since had his account suspended by the social media platform at the request of Nicolas Hénin, a journalist who spent ten months as a prisoner of Isis before he was released – allegedly after the French government paid a ransom (which it denies). "Losing an infant in such terrible circumstances is not an excuse for pouring out such a torrent of hate," said Hénin. Hénin has subsequently been abused online, with some messages threatening him with death. On Monday he began legal proceedings against some of his abusers.

The furore underlines what a daunting and divisive challenge the fate of captured jihadists is, not just for France, but for all Western nations whose young men and women enlisted in the Islamic State. Sky News this week reported on two Britons who are being held by US-led coalition forces in eastern Syria. "I came here to do humanitarian work,"one of the Britons told the broadcaster. "I have hurt nobody."

That, of course, is the standard defence of every detainee, along with a declaration of profound regret. One of the most notorious French jihadists in custody is Emilie König, an alleged veteran recruiter for the Islamic State, who for years expressed nothing but contempt for her homeland. That changed when the 34-year-old was caught last year. "She wants to come back," said her mother at the time. "She regrets all her words and wants to pay her debt in France."

Many in France believe that the debt is too great to be repaid, like Laurent Wauquiez, leader of the centre-right Les Républicains. He said last week that there is "only one common sense solution: forbid purely and simply the return [of those] who left to wage jihad".

Twelve months ago, François Molins, France's top counter-terrorism prosecutor, warned against the naivety of those calling for compassion for captured jihadists. Even the women and children had to handled with the utmost care. Describing youngsters as ‘time bombs’, Moulins added that "one cannot exclude that there will in the future be women and minors implicated in combatant roles".

The other threat – possibly the greater – posed by jihadist women and their children is ideological. How can France ever be sure that once they are reinserted into society that won't start radicalising those around them, exhorting them to follow the law of Islam and not the Republic? As returning jihadists have admitted, deradicalisation doesn't work.

How the government deals with the returning jihadists has implications for the Yellow Vest movement, which increasingly is becoming more of an economic than a cultural protest. This is a result of left-wing union infiltration and Emmanuel Macron's strategy of consultation and reminding voters of the need for law and order. The right recognises this, but if they perceive their president takes a tough line with protestors but a weak one with extremists, then he will see the consequences in May's European elections. His prime minister, Édouard Philippe, believes it preferable that jihadists are "judged, convicted and punished in France rather than disappearing to plan other actions, including against our country". That will require rigorous investigations by state prosecutors to ensure that human rights lawyers don't obtain their release on the grounds of insufficient evidence. "Work is being done...with the utmost care," said a government official. "We don't want to risk any procedural problems which would allow any of them to be released once they get back to France."

Philippe knows that complacency with jihadists has tragic consequences. His predecessor, Manuel Valls, was the prime minister of a government that tragically under-estimated the Islamist threat, and he had to deal with the fall-out in 2015. That included a confrontation at the Gare du Nord with a despairing father who was still looking for his daughter two days after the Paris attack. "I can't even get any news of my daughter who was at the Bataclan," he cried in front of a shocked Valls. "There is nobody capable of giving me news about my daughter."

The father's name was Patrick Jardin.