French Debate Whether Children of ISIS Terrorists Should be Allowed to Return to France

By Fayçal Benhassain | March 13, 2019 | 8:19pm EDT
A still from a 2013 ISIS propaganda video shows numerous children, with adult fighters in the background, at an unknown location in the Middle East. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Paris ( – While polls suggest that most people in France don’t want the children of French citizens who joined ISIS in the Middle East to be allowed to return to France, a group of lawyers, politicians and others are urging the French government to bring them home.

According to Henri Leclerc, a lawyer and honorary president of the Human Rights League here, some 4,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the children of French ISIS jihadists be allowed to return to France.

“I want to establish a principle for the return of these children,” Leclerc said. “For me these children are, in principle, innocent and they must come back to France.”

Leclerc said the idea of a petition originated with the French-based families of the jihadists. So far the government has not given a response, he said, suggesting that it was “embarrassed” about the issue.

On Wednesday, however, French President Emmanuel Macron said while traveling in East Africa that the government would study the question of jihadists' children on a case-by-case basis.

Relatives of French jihadists filed a complaint against France a fortnight ago with the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva.

Exactly how many children are involved is unclear. Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said in a radio interview there were at least 70 French children in Syria.

‘But people are moving, and it is very difficult to have a stabilized figure.”

She said most of the children were minors, who had either left France with their parents as young children, or been born in the Middle East.

Belloubet did not mention the situation in Iraq. According to Interior Ministry figures published at the end of February, nearly 680 French adults and more than 500 children were still in Syria or Iraq as of mid-2018.

Macron said recently no decision has been made on repatriating French adults among those captured in Syria and Iraq while fighting for the terrorist group. At least 13 French ISIS jihadists look likely to be put on trial in Iraq.

Last fall, French authorities were reported to be open to the idea of bringing home children, beginning with those orphaned in the fighting. But there have been no developments since then.

In a poll commissioned by FranceInfo TV and the Le Figaro daily, published on March 1, 67 percent of French respondents said the children of French jihadists should stay in Iraq or Syria.

With European elections on the horizon, political parties have weighed in.

“The silence of the government is due to its fear of the population, who are against the return of the children, and because of the elections,” said Mehdi Ouraoui, spokesman for a left-wing party known as the Génération S Movement.

But Julien Odoul, member of the far-right National Rally, opposed the return of the jihadists’ children to France, saying French people “want to life in security.”

“By leaving France [to join ISIS] the jihadists decided to cut all ties with France,” Odoul said in a television program. “The principle must be: no children must be brought back.”

Republic in Motion, Macron's party, has not spoken publicly on the issue, although a party lawmaker, Marie-Christine Verdier-Jouclas, said during the same television program that there were three choices relating to the issue of jihadists’ children.

“First, we could leave them there and risk seeing them becoming terrorists when they grow up,” she said. “Second we could bring them back with their mothers who fought against us in the region. We’ll put them [mothers and children] in jail but we risk seeing them [mothers] encouraging their children to become terrorists when they are released.”

The third choice, Verdier-Jouclas said, would be to separate children from their mothers and place them in foster care.

She urged the government to treat the children on a case-by-case basis, concluding that “they are not responsible for their parents' actions.”

A similar view came from Nadim Houry of the French chapter of Human Rights Watch, who said by phone governments “should bring back home their children, who are not responsible for their parents’ acts.”

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