What to do with France’s returning jihadists?

From banishing them to a notorious island in the Atlantic Ocean to re-integrating them into society, French politicians are battling to come up with the best solution for the hundreds of jihadists returning to France from the Middle East.

What to do with France's returning jihadists?
What should France do with returning jihadists, including these three, who called Muslims to attack France?

As France desperately tries to figure out what to do with hundreds of its citizens when and if they return radicalised from jihad in the Middle East, one far-right politician has suggested reopening the notorious Devil’s Island penal colony to house them.

There is little chance the government will agree to reuse the island off the coast of South America whose most famous prisoner was Captain Alfred Dreyfus, whose wrongful treason conviction more than a century ago sparked one of France’s most tense political dramas.

But for the moment it appears to have no clear strategy on the issue whose urgency was highlighted by the news this week that two young Frenchmen were among the executioners of Syrian prisoners and a US aid worker in the latest Islamic State video.

Despite the urgency and the concern over the perceived danger posed by returning jihadists, there remains no official plan to work on “deradicalising” those who have fought in the Middle East and who may be tempted to return and carry out attacks on French soil.

One expert told The Local this week that France's approach remains too one dimensional and too tied to the law.

“In France we have an essentially judicial approach. We need a more psycho-social approach,” Séverine Labat, an expert on Islamism at the CNRS research organisation, told The Local.

'We cannot treat them as common law citizens'

France, like Britain, takes a hard line on those who have actually travelled to the conflict zone.

A 24-year-old man last week became the first French person to be convicted of joining the jihad overseas and was given a seven years in prison, the maximum sentence possible under recently introduced legislation.

Those laws also aim to stop aspiring jihadists from travelling by giving authorities powers to temporarily confiscate their passports.

And they provide strategies to help worried parents spot signs that their children are being radicalised, and try to break the fascination with jihad picked up from online propaganda before it turns into active engagement.

The government has also set up a telephone hotline for worried relatives of those who might be tempted to join the thousands of European volunteers who have already signed up for jihad in Syria and Iraq.

Opposition politicians have been lining up to say that the government needs to come up with a better plan to either punish returning jihadists more severely or make efforts to reintegrate them into society.

Valérie Pécresse, a conservative former minister, has called on the Socialist government to set up “deradicalisation” centres such as exist in Denmark.

“When these jihadists return to France, we cannot treat them as common law citizens. We need to open ‘deindoctrination’ centres,” she told France Info radio, adding that they must be kept away from regular prisons where they would likely “contaminate” other inmates.
Denmark has been at the forefront of EU experiments in rehabilitating young people seduced by militant Islam since it began a pilot scheme in 2009.
Rather than being thrown in jail, Muslim fighters returning from jihad are offered counseling and jobs or university places. Danish authorities have brought together teachers, police, social services and religious leaders to help identify and target problem cases.
France’s far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen unsurprisingly takes one of the toughest lines on French jihadists.
Reacting to the two young Frenchmen seen this week taking part in the IS beheadings, she said that they should be “judged (in France) in absentia and stripped of their nationality.”
A repatriated French fighter, who had ties with the Islamic State, is currently in custody in Belgium accused of killing four people in an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May. 
Security services said in early November that several terrorist plots against France have been foiled in recent months, including one planned to target the famous Nice Carnival.
They pointed out that some of them had been planned by French citizens who had recently returned from the Middle East.
More than a thousand French are believed to be involved in some way with jihad, with nearly 400 thought to be fighting on the frontlines.

But Séverine Labat of the CNRS said that the threat of attacks on France was limited for the moment.

“The priority at the moment for the Islamic State at the moment is regional – to consolidate what they have in the Middle East.

"It’s impossible to predict what will happen in the future of course, but for the moment I don’t think that their priority is attacks in Europe,” she said.

by Rory Mulholland

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UPDATE: Is it possible to drive between Spain and the UK via France?

Travelling between Spain and the UK during the pandemic has been very difficult due to border closures, cancelled flights and quarantines, but what is the situation like now? Is it possible to drive between Spain and the UK via France?

Driving between Spain and UK
Photo: Bertsz / 67 images/ Pixabay

Several readers have asked about the restrictions and necessary documents and tests needed to drive to the UK and if it’s possible. Here’s what you need to know.

Travelling by car between the UK and Spain at the moment is possible, but not very easy. Although it’s a lot easier now than it was before the state of alarm ended, it will still involve PCR and/or antigen testing, quarantine, and lots of form-filling. This will mean extra expenses too. 

Spain and France have both updated their rules on travel as restrictions begin to ease. Here’s a look at what you need to know driving between the UK and Spain, via France right now.

Leaving Spain

Movement in Spain has become a lot easier since the end of the state of alarm on May 9th. This means that you can easily drive across regional borders without the need to prove specific reasons.

There may still be certain municipalities or health zones that you might need to avoid because their borders are still closed due to a high number of cases, but for the most part, your drive through Spain, up until the French border, will be easy.

Keep in mind that some regions still have certain restrictions in place such as when bars and restaurants are allowed to open and a few still maintain curfews, so you’ll need to check the rules of those regions you’re planning on driving through.

READ ALSO: UPDATED: What are the post state of alarm restrictions in each region in Spain?

Crossing the French border from Spain

Travel into France is allowed for any reason, including for tourism and family visits. This easing of restrictions was introduced on May 3rd, which saw France opening up both its regional and international borders.

According to the French embassy in Spain: “Entry into the metropolitan territory from a country in the European area is subject to the presentation, by travellers over eleven years of age, of a negative result of a PCR test, carried out within 72 hours prior to departure. This obligation applies to all modes of travel (arrival by road, rail, air or sea)”.

They also state that all travellers will have to present an affidavit/certificate of international travel, certifying that they do not have symptoms of Covid-19 infection and that they are not aware of having been in contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the fourteen days prior to the trip.

“If you are over eleven years old, you agree that a biological test for SARS-CoV-2 will be carried out upon arrival on French territory” it continues.

The certificate can be downloaded from the website of the French Ministry. The supporting documents must be presented to the control authorities at the border.

The test must be carried out within 72 hours of departing for France and the antigen test is not accepted. You must take a PCR test, otherwise, you’ll be refused entry to France.

A Spanish police officer checks PCR coronavirus tests at the border between Spain and France. Photo: RAYMOND ROIG / AFP

You can drive straight through France, as there’s no quarantine requirement for those coming from inside the EU.

Note that France still has several restrictions in place, but they are gradually easing. As of May 19th, the curfew was extended to 9pm and bars and restaurants were allowed to operate outdoor services only. This means that you’ll need to stop driving and find somewhere to spend the night after the 9pm cut-off time.

If you have to travel past curfew for an essential reason, you will need an attestation permission form, which you can find HERE.

From June 9th, the curfew will be extended again until 11pm and the interiors of bars and restaurants will be allowed to re-open. 

Masks are compulsory in all indoor public spaces across the country, and also outdoors in most of the larger towns and cities. If you don’t wear one, you could face a fine of €135.

Entering the UK

On May 17th, the UK government lifted its ban on all non-essential travel abroad and replaced it with the traffic light system, assigning countries to red, amber or green lists, according to their health data.

France and Spain are currently on the amber list, as well as most other European countries, bar Portugal, which is on the green list.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The European countries on England’s ‘amber’ travel list and what that means

This means that you must follow the amber list rules.

The UK government website states that if coming from an amber-list country, even if you’ve been vaccinated, you need to follow these rules before you enter England:

 On arrival in England you must:

  • quarantine at home or in the place you are staying for 10 days
  • take a COVID-19 test on or before day 2 and on or after day 8

Children aged 4 and under do not need to take the day 2 or day 8 test.

You may be able to end quarantine early if you pay for a private COVID-19 test through the Test to Release scheme.

The traffic light list only applies to England, but Scotland also has its own traffic-light system, which at the moment has the same green-list countries as England. It is thought that Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to adopt the traffic light system too.

If you’re entering the UK from an amber country, you can go for any reason. It doesn’t have to be an essential trip and entry is not limited to UK nationals or residents.

Find further information on UK travel rules HERE.

If in the future, France makes it onto the green list, then no quarantine will be necessary. Regardless, of this, a negative Covid-19 test is still needed to enter England, plus another test on or before day 2.

What about driving back to Spain?

The UK is still advising against travel to amber countries for leisure or tourism reasons, which France and Spain are both currently on.

This isn’t a travel ban, but the official stand can mean that your travel insurance won’t be valid, so check your policy before you travel.

JUNE UPDATE: From Monday, May 31st, France is tightening up entry requirements for arrivals from the UK, following in the footsteps of Germany and Austria as European countries become increasingly concerned about circulation of the ‘Indian variant’ of Covid in the UK.

So what’s the situation if you are just passing through?

If you are returning to your permanent residence in another EU or Schengen zone country then you can travel, as one of the listed ‘vital reasons’ is returning home. You will, however, need to show some proof of your residency, ideally a residency card.

If you are travelling for another reason you can travel through France, provided you spend less than 24 hours in the country.

The testing requirement applies to all arrivals, even if you are only passing through France, but if you spend less than 24 hours in the country you are not required to quarantine.

You will also need to check the rules in your destination country on arrivals from France. If you are entering France from an EU or Schengen zone country you will need to show a negative Covid test taken within the previous 72 hours and this must be a PCR test. You can enter France for any reason from an EU/Schengen country.

And yes, these rules all apply even to the fully vaccinated.

To find out more about the rules and exceptions for travel between France and the UK click the link below.

READ MORE: Spain-UK road travel – Can I transit through France despite the new Indian variant restrictions?

Currently, the Spanish government website states that only citizens and legal residents of the European Union, Schengen states, Andorra, Monaco, The Vatican and San Marino, as well as those who can demonstrate through documentary evidence an essential need to enter Spain, will be able to enter the country.

However, Spain recently announced that it would welcome British tourists into the country without a negative PCR test from May 24th. 


The website also states that “all overland travellers (excluding children under the age of 6 years old) who wish to enter Spain by road from France, are required to present a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours prior to entry”.

This applies to everyone, even if you have been vaccinated already.

Please note The Local is not able to give advice on individual cases. For more information on international travel to and from Spain, see the government’s website and check the restrictions in your destination country with the appropriate embassy.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I fly from the UK to Spain to visit family or my second home?