Families of jihadists: Paris changes course

For the first time since the fall of the « Islamic State » (IS) in 2019, the French state has abandoned the case-by-case approach. On July 5, he repatriated a group of 35 children and 16 wives of jihadists who were locked up in camps run by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. The presence of women among the returnees constitutes another rupture. Until then, only orphans or children whose mothers had agreed to separate had been authorized to return to France, the rule then being that adults had to be judged on the spot.

The announcement was welcomed as a step forward by all those who, for years, have been fighting to obtain the return of these children, condemned to live in undignified conditions due to the choice of their parents. “It is a change of course that we must welcome. It’s late but it’s a good start. There is an awareness of the need to comply with its international commitments and basic respect for humanity,” commented on France 24 Patrick Baudouin, president of the League of Human Rights.

The families of these children and their supporters do not claim victory. They demand the rapid repatriation of the hundred women and 250 children still parked in the Kurdish camps. « We hope that this repatriation signals a change in French policy and that all the children will be repatriated with their mothers », indicated on Franceinfo Marc Lopez, member of the Collective of United Families and grandfather of several of these children. evoking a » emergency « the Defender of Rights, Claire Hédon, for her part recalled « the appalling living conditions with problems of nutrition, health and lack of access to school » encountered by these children whom France refuses to bring back.

Why this change of approach? The refusal to repatriate these children began to damage the international image of France. In February, the country was singled out by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, saying it had “violated the rights of French children detained in Syria by failing to repatriate them”. The body thus added its voice to all the international human rights organizations which have long denounced this failure to respect the rights of the child. The prospect of an upcoming examination of this case by the European Court of Human Rights, and the risk of being sanctioned once again, could also have weighed. Added to this is the fact that the French position was increasingly isolated, after the decision of most European countries whose nationals had joined the IS – Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany – to repatriate , if possible with their mothers, all of their children who remained in the Syrian camps.

The Turkish threat

Geopolitical considerations undoubtedly weighed even more heavily in the decision of the French authorities. “There are threats of Turkish operations (against the camps held by the Kurds – editor’s note), IS, which is reconstituting itself in the Syrian desert, plans to free these women and children,” analyzes Laurent Nuñez, coordinator of intelligence and the fight against terrorism, evoking reasons “increasingly safe” for these repatriation operations. The attack in early 2022, by members of the IS, of the Hasaké prison, controlled by the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), undoubtedly reminded the French authorities of the instability of the region. Under the threat of a new offensive from Ankara, the FDS, which for years have been asking Westerners to stop making them bear the responsibility for the custody of their nationals, have been able to point out that control could escape them. “For the safety of our fellow citizens, it may be better to have these people (these women and children – editor’s note) under our control than in an area where they can scatter in the wild”, recalled Laurent Nuñez, taking up an argument already used by the defenders of these children, but hitherto ignored by the authorities.

In 2019, a first operation was canceled following the publication of a poll showing that 67% of those questioned did not want to see the children of fighters return to France. From now on, « Emmanuel Macron is entering his last term, so he plays much less politically », analyzed lawyer Vincent Brengarth, interviewed by France 24. The issue is all the less controversial as over the years the memory of the particularly violent terrorist attacks in France has lost intensity. The evolution of position has undoubtedly also been facilitated by the change at the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian having always shown himself hostile to any idea of ​​repatriation.

Pending a decision for all the families of former IS combatants, France has made arrangements to welcome this first group. Among the repatriated women, eight were taken into custody « in execution of a search warrant », said the National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor’s Office. Already the subject of an arrest warrant, the eight others, including Émilie König, the best-known French jihadist, have been indicted for criminal terrorist association and imprisoned. The recent opening in Rennes of a radicalization assessment area for women should facilitate their legal treatment and that of possible future repatriates. The children were entrusted upon their arrival to the Yvelines child welfare service, which monitors their physical and especially psychological state of health, after years of deprivation and violence. The majority of them should eventually join members of their extended family, who have been waiting for them for years.


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