In France, a radical approach to fighting radicalization

Why We Wrote This

By making efforts to understand the root causes of radicalization, the town of Argenteuil, France, has made strides in combating extremism. Its innovative approach has made it an example for other cities.

Nicolas Messyasz/Sipa Press/AP
Georges Mothron, mayor of Argenteuil, France, launched a program last September to train city employees to recognize behaviors that could be deemed discriminatory or indicate that someone has radicalized. His program has become an inspiration for other cities.

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Like any other city, Argenteuil, France, is not immune to discrimination or violent extremism. With a population of 110,000, it counts two mosques, one synagogue, and several churches. More than 26% of the population lives below the poverty line, and immigrants – mostly from Morocco and Algeria – represent 26% of the population. 

Last September, the city’s mayor, Georges Mothron, launched a comprehensive program to train city employees to recognize behaviors – in both themselves and the public they serve – that could be deemed discriminatory or indicate that someone has radicalized. 

The plan teaches awareness of self and others rather than placing blame, and it comes at a time when anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and violent extremist acts continue to trouble the country. 

“Discrimination is a very important part of the [radicalization] equation,” says sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar. “It develops a kind of a vicious circle of mostly young Muslim men who feel rejected by society and feel that they can’t have a normal path toward integration, so they choose deviant behavior. … And once someone has been radicalized, it’s very difficult to turn back.”

The Esplanade Salvador Allende, a sprawling concrete slab at the center of a half-dozen social housing blocks, is normally a place people pass through to go to work, home, or the nearby community center. But today, the square here in Argenteuil is acting as a pop-up meet-and-greet for residents, with activities and entertainment organized by City Hall.

Two teenage girls color a giant picture spread out on a card table while a young boy paints an assortment of candles. One mother and her tween daughter are caught up in a heated match of dominoes. Off to the side, an elderly couple sits quietly, taking in the scene.

“I don’t usually hang out here, but it’s nice to come and talk with people,” says one resident who asked to remain anonymous, adjusting her lavender headscarf. “But even without this event, there’s a good ambiance here. There’s a big mix of cultures and religions in the neighborhood. But we don’t have any clashes because of it.”

The esplanade epitomizes Argenteuil’s demographic – diverse and cosmopolitan, where everyone seems to be able to live peacefully together without conflict.

Argenteuil may be a model of what the French call mixité – or social diversity – but like any other city, it is not immune to discrimination or, in recent years, violent extremism. That’s why the city’s mayor, Georges Mothron, launched a comprehensive program last September to train city employees to recognize behaviors – in both themselves and the public they serve – that could be deemed discriminatory or indicate that someone has radicalized. By training those who serve the public, the program works to fend off discriminatory and violent extremist acts now and in the future.

Colette Davidson
Residents gather at the Esplanade Salvador Allende in Argenteuil, France, during a pop-up event organized by Argenteuil's City Hall to encourage cultural awareness and foster exchange among neighbors.

And while Mr. Mothron didn’t set out to implement his program across the country, the preventive plan provides inspiration to other cities in France. By employing methods that focus on personal introspection and identifying behavior, it teaches awareness of self and others rather than placing blame. It comes at a time when anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and violent extremist acts continue to trouble the country.

“Discrimination is a very important part of the [radicalization] equation,” says Farhad Khosrokhavar, an author and sociologist at Paris’ School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences who studies radicalization. “It develops a kind of a vicious circle of mostly young Muslim men who feel rejected by society and feel that they can’t have a normal path toward integration, so they choose deviant behavior. They’re stigmatized, so this in turn strengthens their discrimination of others. … And once someone has been radicalized, it’s very difficult to turn back.”

Discouraging discrimination 

Set on the northwestern edge of Paris, Argenteuil is the largest town in the Val-d’Oise department. With a population of 110,000, it counts two mosques, one synagogue, and several churches. More than 26% of the population lives below the poverty line, and immigrants – mostly from Morocco and Algeria – represent 26% of the population.

While overall crime rates in Val-d’Oise went down in 2018, the number of violent acts has increased, particularly among youth. In March 2016, an arsenal of weapons was found in an apartment in Argenteuil in a thwarted terror attack.

Since the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015, discrimination has remained a concern for the country. While anti-Muslim acts in France decreased by 18% between 2017 and 2018, anti-Semitic violence rose by more than 70%, according to a 2018 study. A separate study found that 1 in 4 French people have been discriminated against on the job over the past five years.

“Since the Bataclan attacks, people often lump all types of people into the same box, confusing Muslims with violent extremists, for example,” says Christine-Louise Sadowski, director of public security and the anti-discrimination program for Argenteuil. “It’s our job to get all city employees to the same level in order to offer quality service.”

The trainings are twofold. One half involves learning how to recognize radicalization in others and how to report suspicious behavior. The second component breaks down religious and cultural barriers, explores common stereotypes, and reveals how discrimination can hinder normal functioning of public services.

The key piece of Argenteuil’s plan, says Ms. Sadowski, was recruiting a single expert to lead the trainings: Chems Akrouf, a terrorism expert and former employee of France’s Defense Ministry. Since the program launched, Mr. Akrouf has trained more than 2,000 city employees and acts as the primary contact person for the public.

“In France we have a phone number you can use to report suspicious behavior, but it goes directly to the police,” says Mr. Akrouf. “Some people don’t want to expose another person or they’re worried it will fall back on them, so they don’t report things at all. With me, they know they can call me and we can discuss it privately before taking things further.”

Changing attitudes 

Argenteuil’s prevention plan comes as France is in the midst of implementing measures to tackle radicalization. But with some 20,000 people labeled as “Fiche S” – those who pose a threat to state security – France has struggled to find an effective method for preventing or punishing violent extremist behavior.

In 2017, citing inconclusive results, the government announced it was shuttering the country’s only deradicalization center after just one year. In February 2018, it took a U-turn and launched a national plan comprising 60 measures to tackle radicalization online, in schools, businesses, and across government ministries. Since its debut, the program has made nearly 15,000 requests for harmful internet content to be removed, and distributed 20,000 information kits to public schools.

But some say that the national awareness campaign doesn’t hit hard enough at the problem.

“Look at what’s behind it – nothing,” says Mr. Khosrokhavar. “Words are beautiful but look at what is being done effectively. It doesn’t do anything against radicalization in and of itself. Radicalized people have to be identified and have to be dealt with through legal repression.”

The success of Argenteuil’s plan has relied largely on word of mouth and the buy-in of city workers. 

Employees from youth centers and sports clubs to day cares and City Hall have joined the program. And while they don’t have statistics yet on how well it’s working, Ms. Sadowski says that the lack of pushback is indicative of its success.

“[Radicalization] is a very delicate topic, but we haven’t had any type of rejection from city employees or the public,” says Ms. Sadowski. “We’ve also had several towns contact us who are interested in implementing the program as well.”

The city is also distributing a questionnaire to the public about how the program is functioning, says Ms. Sadowski, so that the “program is not top-down, it’s on-the-ground.” In addition, they’ve held three community debates – on fake news, religious diversity, and citizenry, to communicate more directly with the public.

Thierry Grelet, who works in public events management for Argenteuil, says the trainings have pushed him to begin thinking of how he approaches others, professionally and personally.

“We’re regularly assailed by the media, the internet, with images of certain groups doing something wrong. It has an impact on our work,” says Mr. Grelet. “Sometimes we create ideas about people that aren’t the right ones. … These trainings have helped me avoid making judgments too quickly about people.”

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