Since January 2015, 239 people have been murdered in terrorist attacks in France, a country known for its mouthwatering cuisine, refined sense of art, high fashion and rich culture.
Which is why Muriel Domenach, general secretary of the inter-ministerial Committee for the Prevention of Delinquency and Radicalization, arrived in Israel this week. Domenach hoped to get a firsthand look at how Israel manages to remain a vibrant democracy while combating terrorism with a large degree of success.
During her brief visit, Domenach met with academics and government representatives from the Interior and Justice ministries to learn how Israel strikes that delicate balance.
So far, this has not proved an easy task for a country such as France, which prides itself on liberté, égalité, fraternité.
However, given that some 16,000 French citizens are thought to have been radicalized, it has become a matter of urgency.
Domenach, 43, assumed her role in August after her stint as the French consul-general in Istanbul from September 2013 to June 2016.
She is part of a 30-person team that spans the spectrum of the French government, with members of the Foreign Affairs, Justice, Social, Family, Health, Education and Interior ministries all doing their part to tackle the situation.
“I think France and Israel have a lot to share, as we both find ourselves – sadly and painfully – in the face of terrorism,” she explained this week during a two-day trip to Israel. “Although [each country’s brand of terrorism] differs in terms of motivation, and response, it ranks first among priorities in both of our countries,” said Domenach.
“I’m very interested in learning from Israel about how a society fights to stay a democracy while maintaining its security considerations,” she said, acknowledging that imposing limitations on freedom and civil liberties would only be a boon for terrorists.
“I think Israel has given a lot attention to the right questions that are being pointed out,” she asserted, arguing that the most important battle should be waged not on the streets but online. In her view, the Internet has become the hotbed of radicalization.
While France and Israel may not see eye-to-eye on many diplomatic matters, when it comes to addressing Internet radicalization, the two countries can unite to form a common bond.
“I think this is not only an opportunity, sadly, but a necessity to act together against terrorism. Especially when it comes to hate speech and [social media platforms],” she argued. “I think France and Israel should be leading forces in a coalition including social media platforms in taking down hate speech.”
For both France and social media companies, though, that reaction has been a delayed one.
“For the Internet actors, as I see things from my chair, from a country that basically comes from a state of peace which has evolved into a state of emergency – some say a state of war – social media companies are learning to be interlocutors in France. It took us time to sort of get ourselves together and point out the specifics of radicalization.”
That’s where Domenach and her team come in. Her department has developed a comprehensive rubric defining how to combat radicalization, which is comprised of five components: detection, training, social follow-up (where 2,400 radicalized youth and 1,000 families are being monitored), disengagement, and counter- narrative.
She emphasized that the program is not designed to target Muslims. As the Quebec mosque attack last month indicates, terrorism is not always rooted in a specific religion, she argued.
By her definition, radicalization refers to the “process that connects ideological/religious extremism with a possible turn to violence.” And it is a behavior that almost always starts with hate speech, which is why monitoring Internet activity is of the utmost necessity.
As a result, France has developed a collective system where average citizens, officials and everyone in between can report questionable content. One program, Pharos – developed in 2009 – is an online program that allows citizens to monitor and report hateful speech online.
Social media companies have started to assist as well, although, in Domenach’s view, their work has much room for improvement.
Twitter, for example, has shut down 300,000 Twitter accounts in the past year-and-a-half. But the social media giant tends to have a blanket approach to which accounts are objectionable, when the method should be much more nuanced. Shutting down parody accounts, what Domenach referred to as part of the counter-narrative, does more harm than good.
“They’re not doing us a favor, because those accounts are not official accounts; and by ridiculing jihadists, [parody accounts] do a good job. Shutting down those accounts is ridiculous and completely counterproductive,” she said. “I’m not asking for a blank check, but be a bit more thoughtful.”
Counter-narrative, then, can serve as terrorism’s Achilles’ heel. To that end, France has developed an online role-playing game called Toujours le Choix (Always the Choice), which lets one step into the shoes of a would-be Islamic State recruit. The game starts off innocently enough, where the player accepts a message from a friend of a friend in Syria, and then ends up deadly, if the player chooses to progress in a way that succumbs to Islamic State’s allure.
Since its December launch, the online role-playing has been seen by 90% of the French population.
According to Domenach, every member of French society should do his or her part to point out the absurdities and danger in jihadism – and Muslims are not exempt.
“All of French society should sponsor counter-narratives, including people who call themselves Muslims,” she said.
The reality is that counter-narrative is limited in scope in terms of accomplishing results, which is why the French government has attempted some more extreme methods to combat radicalization.
What is referred to as disengagement, essentially putting threatening individuals in an anti-incitement boot camp, is one of those methods. Inmates are free to leave at any point during the intensive 10-month training program provided in a facility in central France, but this new method is generating controversy for being both too restrictive and not restrictive enough.
But to really combat radicalization, one must bring out the big guns – literally. Therefore, Domenach is fully behind US President Donald Trump’s claim that an international coalition must come together to wage war against Islamic State.
“My sense, when it comes to counter-narrative, is that military victory is the best counter-narrative in the real world. The fact that ISIS is losing territory makes it lose some of its dark allure.”