As France continues to grapple with terror threats across the country, government officials announced Tuesday its first official de-radicalization center will open at the end of the month in a sleepy town in the west. It's being marketed as a place specifically for people who may be on the verge of carrying out extremist violence, and those who have tried and failed to travel abroad to join terrorist groups.
By the end of September, the Pontourny center will welcome up to 25 young people from ages 18 to 30 who espouse radical ideology in a converted government building in Beaumont-en-Veron, a small town of about 2,800 people located 210 miles southwest of Paris. It's unclear how they will ensure attendance. People are supposed to voluntarily check in to the center, and may return home on the weekends if they choose.
"These are individuals who are at a breaking point in their identity, who hold hate speeches against the West," Amélie Boukhobza, a French psychologist and expert on radical jihadism told local news channel BFMTV. "We will work with them around the clock, so we can truly hope to change things, to work, and to tackle this together with them."
But the people who live there aren't exactly thrilled at the prospect of their new neighbors. A group of locals has been protesting outside of the building this week over concerns that the center could be targeted by Islamic State militants.
"The security measures are simply insufficient," Michel Carrier, the person leading the protest, also told BFMTV.
Earlier this year, French prime minister Manuel Valls vowed to open a dozen or so anti-radicalization centers — at an estimated cost of $45.5 million over two years — with the goal of curbing would-be jihadists from carrying out violence, and to dissuade youth from taking up arms for the Islamic State. According to government numbers, about 2,000 French nationals are believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State.
"The fight against jihad is undoubtedly the biggest challenge of our generation," Valls said.
North America's first anti-radicalization group launched in Montreal last year with millions of dollars in funding from the city and the province of Quebec. Unlike the center in France, it does not accept people for rehabilitation, but employees field hundreds of calls on the center's hotline, and claim to have intervened in dozens of cases of radicalized Canadians.
Earlier this year, Belgium opened its first counter-radicalization centre, modelled after the one in Montreal.
Since de-radicalization efforts are so new, and there is scant evidence on what methods work, experts approach the idea with skepticism. "There is no one answer," a press attaché for the Belgian minister spearheading the center there told the Montreal Gazette. "But the idea was to look left and right and find the best of what people are doing elsewhere."
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne