France has long prided itself on its staunchly secular institutions, but as many French Muslims identify with hardline groups, the country is re-evaluating its approach to religion.
In November, sympathisers of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL) – also known as ISIS, took to the streets of Paris and carried out bloodiest attacks on France in decades in which 130 people were killed.
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Many of the suspects had spent time in prison where they developed hardline views, according to observers.
A month earlier, some 1,770 French citizens were reportedly either inside Syria or Iraq, on their way there, or returning home – that is higher than any other European country.
In response to fears of “radicalisation”, a trial programme in five prisons is being explored.
The programme focuses its energy on those considered to hold “radical” views, and separates them from other prisoners.
For six months, those suspected of holding such beliefs follow an “intensive programme” where they learn general knowledge. They also take workshops held by speakers including victims of terrorism, former “extremists”, political commentators and psychologists.
Francoise Descamp-Crosnier, an MP with the Socialist Party, visited the Fresnes Prison, which is 11km from the centre of Paris, to assess the trial’s success.
Units at Fresnes and the Fleury Merogis jail are dedicated to assessing the inmates – a process lasting two to six weeks that determines how “radicalised” or “dangerous” they are.
Those considered “radicalised” or “becoming radicalised” will be separated and put in specific units. The others will be mixed with other inmates.
“It’s important because it’s the first prison to have areas reserved for radicalised detainees,” said Descamp-Crosnier. “That’s been the starting point for the other prisons that have also introduced this type of [programme].”
However, some object to the trial.
Al Jazeera spoke to one former inmate who had spent two years in Guantanamo after being held by the US army in Pakistan. He described the dedicated areas as a way to create “a French Guantanamo”.
Members of the prison officers’ union, meanwhile, believe that the government needs to boost funding and staff for any programme to work. The current plan, they say, could even be counterproductive
“The fact that we are grouping them together and allowing them to be together, I find that actually quite dangerous,” said Yoan Karar, a spokesman for the union. “What needs to be understood is that Fresnes is a prison for those awaiting trial, so once they’ve been sentenced, they’ll be sent out to other prisons.”
Lack of prison imams
For others, the real issue is a lack of positive religious influences in prison. Yannis Warrach dedicates his time to offering religious guidance to Muslim inmates, as he thinks there is a lack of prison imams.
There are 200 imams working in French prisons. Although the French do not register individuals’ religion, about 60 percent of France’s prison population is Muslim, according to a 2014 parliamentary report.
Because the prison imams are not considered full-time public employees, most chaplains visit the prisons for a few hours a week
“We have a situation where inmates are left to their own devices,” said Warrach.
“If there’s no imam available, either because he is not there much or because there isn’t one in the prison, they will instead rely on other inmates, who very often have a very, very fundamentalist understanding of Islam.”
Close attention is being paid to see whether programmes like the one in Fresnes will have any impact.
But many fear that with the rise of the far right in France, policies that encourage a more nuanced approach are likely to struggle for funding, whatever their benefits.