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Jihadist Wives on French Soil by Hélène de Lauzun

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Jihadist Wives on French Soil

France faces the thorny issue of what to do with the French families who have gone to Syria to wage jihad. 

Several establishments are designated to receive them in France. There are six in all, spread across the country. One is in Rennes, Brittany. There, a centre opened in September 2021 to receive the wives of jihadists. 

The return of these women—and sometimes their children—often causes controversy in the French public debate. On July 5th, 16 women and 35 children were repatriated from Syrian prison camps following the fall of the Islamic State. The question is, to what extent should the French state bear the cost and burden of hosting these people—even in special centres? Should they be considered as victims of jihadism, or should they be treated as full-fledged perpitrators of terrorism?

The director of the Rennes prison, Véronique Sousset, testified to a change in how this matter is now conceived: “We have moved from the idea of jihadists’ wives as victims of their companions’ choices, to that of jihadist women, sometimes instigators of violent actions,” she explained to a senator on a parliamentary visit to the prison building. 

The objective of their repatriation to France is twofold. First, to question them and assess their exact role within the Islamic State organisation, and second, to bring them to justice. But some of the public interest groups that accompany these women hope to reintegrate them into society and divert them from their paths of violence. Laurent Nuñez, national coordinator of intelligence and the fight against terrorism, justifies the repatriation of some women through a humanitarian logic and an eye toward national security. He explains that he would prefer to see “these jihadist women incarcerated and brought to justice here” rather than “returning en masse to the jihadist sectors that are reconstituting themselves in the region.”

Since the opening of the Rennes centre, the staff who work there consider themselves satisfied, and interpret any encouraging signal with optimism. The women who stay in Rennes are not ordinary activists, but rather belong to the top of the hierarchy of women detained for terrorism. The centre’s administration welcomes the fact that one of them, for example, asked if it was possible to listen to music in the gym. Music—except for religious songs—is forbidden by radical Islam: this woman’s request would be interpreted as a sign of success, of the gradual ‘de-radicalisation’ of this prisoner.

The convicts are obliged to complete thirty hours of geopolitics, history, and religion classes with well-known personalities, in order to “deconstruct” the traces of Islamist ideology in them. In addition to this academic side, there are specific services for this women’s quarter. There is a hairdresser, a beautician, and a sports coach designed to inculcate them a different vision of womanhood. They are forbidden to wear the veil outside the cells. 

In the coming months, these prisoners, who are often mothers, will have the possibility of bringing their babies or very young children to a special area. Older children can already visit their mothers in the visiting room. Today, 185 minors returning from Syria are already being monitored on French territory. They are above all perceived as “victims of their parents’ radicalism,” in the words of Secretary of State for Children Charlotte Caubel. They must then reside with specially trained foster families. This reception policy is far from being unanimously supported. The Socialist regional councillor Céline Pina, who specialises in the fight against political Islamism, denounces, for example, a guilty indulgence towards these jihadist mothers and women. “A democracy can die from too much strength or too much weakness,” she explained on Radio Courtoisie. “Here, by allowing these women to return, we are showing too much weakness.” The weekly Marianne points out that Emmanuel Macron opportunely implemented these returns after the legislative elections, while six out of ten French people are opposed to the return of jihadists’ wives and children to national soil.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).