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France has repatriated more than half the people it defined as radical Islamists living in the country without a residence permit since 2018. Now it wants to extend the penalty and deport even more.
When French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin summoned the country's regional prefects in June, his message was clear. The authorities in France's regions had to take swift, decisive action against foreigners who committed crimes. Residence permits should be reviewed, and more offenders should be deported if they had committed particularly serious crimes, such as second-degree murder, drug trafficking and rape.
Even if they are not immediately deported, people who have committed a criminal offense in France receive a letter telling them what the state expects of them. "Every year, the French Republic takes in people from other countries. One of the conditions for this is strict compliance with the rules and laws that govern its territory," the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche quoted from a template of the letter, which concludes with a warning: "Any further crime will lead to a re-examination of your residence status, which could result in your being required to leave France."
In parallel with this initiative, the government also released new figures on deportations. There are around 23,000 names on France's Watch List for the Prevention of Terrorist Radicalization (FSPRT). Of the 1,115 people recorded there whose residence status was irregular, the statistics show that 601 foreigners were deported back to their home countries over the past three years – i.e. more than half. Of the remaining 514 "potential terrorists," a large number are currently serving prison sentences or are in custody pending deportation.
More than 250 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in France in recent years. Regional governments of various political persuasions have responded by introducing tougher laws. But the issue of deportation has become more controversial, in part because the standard profile of such an attacker has changed.
"More recently, the perpetrators are no longer French citizens who grew up in France and went to French schools. For two or three years now, they're more likely to be foreign nationals, some of whom have legal status in France – as asylum seekers, for example – while others are in the country irregularly," explains Marc Hecker, a terrorism expert and director of research at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris. He traces this development in his new book, "La guerre de vingt ans" [The Twenty Years War].
It's a shift that poses major challenges for policymakers. Many countries refuse to take back citizens who have been radicalized. If they do agree to do so, the deportees' lives may be at risk in their homeland. The case of Djamel Beghal, convicted of terrorism in France in 2005 and later alleged to have played an important role in radicalizing the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris, demonstrates how, in the past, the wrangling over deportation could last a very long time. Beghal, an Algerian citizen, had arrived in France in 1987 at the age of 21 and had been on the security services' radar since the 1990s. Even though he was stripped of his French citizenship in 2006, his deportation to Algeria failed at the time on humanitarian grounds.
On the French side, the role played by such considerations has clearly changed. France still does not deport people to war zones, but the list of countries it doesn't deport to has got shorter over the years. Djamel Beghal was deported to Algeria three years ago, immediately after his release from prison.
The number of repatriations to Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco increased significantly following negotiations with the Maghreb countries – and this in turn has had an impact on the security situation there. In the 2010s, around 25,000 men and women from Tunisia alone tried to join the civil war in Syria. Around 4,500 actually made it there – and many have long since returned, which poses a huge challenge for the security agencies in their homeland. Terrorism expert Marc Hecker comments that "sending radicalized people to countries that don't have the same surveillance capabilities as France naturally increases the problem for those countries."
However, the deportations are supported by France's political opposition, as well – not least because the French state's resources are also finite. "The FSPRT database of radicalized individuals currently includes around 23,000 people, of whom about 8,000 are regarded as active," says Hecker. "That's a lot for a country like France. It's also apparent from the number of attacks in recent months and years that the intelligence services are not infallible."
And it's not just the large number of people on the list of "potential terrorists" that's stretching the French surveillance system to the limit. Experts are also concerned that the perpetrators of the most recent attacks were not on the intelligence services' radar at all. Chechen-born Abdoulakh A. was unknown to them before he murdered the history teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020, as was the Tunisian assassin who killed three people in a church in Nice not long afterwards. Marc Hecker explains the Nice attacker "was in France irregularly, and entered the country only very shortly beforehand. In fact, he only arrived in Europe from Tunisia a month before the attack." Another Tunisian attacker, a 36-year-old who stabbed and killed a police administrative worker at a police station in Rambouillet last April, was also previously unknown to authorities.
It remains to be seen whether the deportations will effect a lasting improvement in France's tense security situation. They should at least relieve the burden on the authorities in the short term. Hecker believes that registration obligations and the Schengen information system will make it difficult for deportees to get back across the Mediterranean and into France undetected. However, there are still questions that need to be addressed. "France is currently having this debate about whether the attackers' profile is changing. If it is, is this only temporary – because all the 'old generation' of domestic terrorists are currently in prison, and will eventually be released – or does it reflect a more lasting trend?" he asks.