A mom sues France for letting her son go to Syria – and she might win

The mother claims that French authorities failed to stop her 16-year-old son from joining jihadis in Syria. While it would be tough to argue in a US court, French lawyers say that she's got a case.

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
Members of Al Qaeda's Nusra Front drive in a convoy as they tour villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, December 2, 2014.

A 16-year-old boy travels from France to Syria via Turkey without a passport – and without being challenged by French authorities. He ends up training as a terrorist. Is the French government at fault?

His mother says yes. And she may have a case.

Nadine D says her son, known by a pseudonym, Dylan, left home last year and allegedly joined a group of fighters affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group allied with Al Qaeda. In mid-November, she filed a complaint at Paris’s Administrative Court claiming state negligence and seeking damages of 110,000 euros ($136,000). She says French border police should have been more suspicious of a minor traveling on his French ID card to Turkey, given that it's a popular transit route for jihadists in Syria.

This is the first time a parent has sued the French government for its role in a French minor becoming radicalized abroad, and it could potentially allow others to file similar complaints. Nearly 1,000 French citizens, including several teenagers, have traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq this year, according to Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

French anti-terror police said yesterday they had dismantled a jihadist network in Toulouse, Paris, and Normandy that had been sending fighters to Syria. 

Unlike in the US, where a similar lawsuit wouldn't likely go anywhere, Nadine D has a plausible case in France. Under French administrative law, a special court considers whether or not the state should be held responsible for damages caused to users of public services. And unlike in Anglo-American law, where judges follow the precedent of prior court rulings on an issue, each judge in France can make decisions differently from other courts on the same question of law.

“The mother’s lawyer should base her claim on the demonstration of gross negligence on the part of the border police within the public sector,” says Caroline Yvernault, a Paris-based lawyer. “[The lawyer] must attest that the mother suffered injury by her son’s departure, and thus show the link between the negligence and the injuries she has suffered.”

Another option is to “to prove that the state ... did not respect the law regarding a minor traveling,” says Muriel Fayat, a public affairs lawyer at the law firm Chatain et Associes.

However, this could prove difficult, especially since French laws on international travel by minors are murky. In 2012, the French government repealed a law that had required minors to have prior parental authorization to leave French territory. Since Jan. 1, 2013, French citizens – including minors – have been allowed to travel within the European Union, as well as certain countries like Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey, using only a French ID card.

According to the French Interior Ministry, the border police had no reason to prevent Dylan from traveling. Because the airport had no suspicious information for him on record, stopping him from traveling could have been an illegal act. 

Nonetheless, Nadine D may not prevail. The father of Mohamed Merah – a Frenchman who went on a shooting spree in the name of jihad in March 2012 – filed a similar complaint against the state, but lost.

For many, the government can only be held responsible for so much. In the end, they say, it is the family’s job to monitor loved ones for potential radicalization. Yves Boyer, a professor of international relations at Ecole Polytechnique, says Dylan’s mother’s reaction is understandable in such times of distress but it has no legal grounds.

“I don’t see how this will go through,” says Dr. Boyer. “The parents are first and foremost responsible. The state cannot replace the responsibility of parents. This is a family affair.”

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