Wary hope for French families awaiting returns from Syria

Jacques Le Brun, above, is hoping his son is among the 130 French nationals expected to return home soon. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2019

Wary hope for French families awaiting returns from Syria

  • More than 100 French nationals who joined Daesh may soon return to France
  • Reports estimate that around 300 French extremists died during the years fighting Daesh

Labastide-Rouairoux, FRANCE: After years of waiting for his son to come home from Syria, Jacques Le Brun is cautiously hoping that day may be nearing — along with the chance to meet three grandchildren who have never seen France.
“He’ll certainly go to prison, and he knows that. He probably even deserves it a little,” Le Brun says at the family home in Labastide-Rouairoux, a village tucked in a forested valley of southern France.
The important thing, he says, is that Quentin makes it home alive after taking his wife and infant daughter in 2014 to join the Daesh group in Syria — where he later appeared in a chilling Deash propaganda video burning his passport.
About six weeks ago Le Brun learned that his son, now 30, was stranded near the Euphrates river in the last pocket of Daesh-held territory, besieged by Kurdish forces and targeted by coalition airstrikes.
Then last month reporters from the magazine Paris Match found Quentin and his family as they were surrendering, raising the possibility they could be among the roughly 130 French nationals who may soon be repatriated to France from Kurd-controlled prison camps in northern Syria.
The government is weighing the move after President Donald Trump announced in December that he would withdraw US troops from the war-torn country.
That prompted fears of a security vacuum in the north of Syria, in particular if Kurdish forces abandoned their surveillance of the captured fighters to defend against a potential assault by Turkey, which considers the Kurds a terrorist threat.
For Quentin’s family, along with dozens of others across France, it’s a chance to be reunited after years of anxiety over his fate.
“Our life has changed,” said his sister, asking not to be identified by name. “Before we woke up each morning wondering if they were alive. It was hell.”
French government sources say 70 to 80 children are among the citizens being held by Kurdish forces, and around 15 women — half of whom are considered “dangerous.”
An additional 250 men, as well as accompanying wives and children, are thought to be elsewhere in Syria. An estimated 300 French extremists are thought to have been killed during the years-long coalition fight to eradicate Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
France had long insisted that captured French fighters must be tried locally, either in Syria or Iraq, a hard-line stance which nodded to fears that returned fighters could stage attacks on French soil upon their release from prison.
“We, their families, just want them to be able to return to France and be judged fairly, sentenced only for what each of them has done — and not have to pay for all the Daesh crimes,” said the mother of a 30-year-old woman now in Syria with her four children, aged 10 months to nine years old.
While calling their potential return “a glimmer in the night,” she worries they could be killed before any decision is made to bring them back.
“We’ve heard of at least four French women killed in the past few months, along with their husbands and 18 children in total” during the coalition bombings, the woman said.
Like several family members who spoke with AFP, she asked that her name be withheld, fearing harassment or ostracization in a country deeply scarred by the wave of deadly extremist attacks since the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres of 2015.
Despite reports that repatriations could begin in the coming days, Jacques Le Brun says he has had “no information, no official contact” from French authorities.
The 58-year-old retired truck driver says he is still trying to understand how his son, who later took the name Abou Osama Al-Faransi, became caught up in extremist ideology.
Quentin began attending a local mosque before falling in with the “Artigat” network, named for a village near the southwestern city of Toulouse.
The village was the home Olivier Corel, a Syrian-born Salafist imam suspected of mentoring several extremists including Mohamed Merah, who was shot dead by police after he murdered seven people, among them a rabbi and three Jewish children, in Toulouse in a 2012 killing spree.
Albert Chennouf-Meyer, father of one of Merah’s seven victims, has called on President Emmanuel Macron to keep the extremists out.
“Mr President, you will in the coming weeks (...) bring back 130 French extremists, some of whom have the blood of our children on their hands,” he said in an open letter seen by AFP on Saturday.
“I intend to use all my strength against this criminal decision,” he added.
Le Brun wants to believe his son wasn’t involved in any violence or killings, but the release of the Daesh propaganda video has been a heavy burden on his family.
Quentin’s mother finds it hard to hold down a job, and his youngest brother has been hounded by high school classmates.
Many in the village make no secret of their hostility to Quentin’s return.
“It’s not necessarily a good idea to bring back these extremists, they might start again,” said Laurent Montagon, a 53-year-old pizzeria owner in Labastide-Rouairoux.
“They’ll scare people if they come back here.”
Jacques Le Brun knows the suspicions will be hard to bear, but he is determined to recover his grandchildren and “get them away from all that.”


UK’s Johnson to visit European capitals seeking Brexit breakthrough

Updated 18 August 2019

UK’s Johnson to visit European capitals seeking Brexit breakthrough

  • Johnson will travel for talks with German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron
  • Johnson is expected to push for the EU to reopen negotiations over the terms of Brexit

LONDON: UK's Boris Johnson will visit European capitals this week on his first overseas trip as prime minister, as his government said Sunday it had ordered the scrapping of the decades-old law enforcing its EU membership.

Johnson will travel to Berlin on Wednesday for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and on to Paris Thursday for discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron, Downing Street confirmed on Sunday, amid growing fears of a no-deal Brexit in two and a half months.

The meetings, ahead of a two-day G7 summit starting Saturday in the southern French resort of Biarritz, are his first diplomatic forays abroad since replacing predecessor Theresa May last month.

Johnson is expected to push for the EU to reopen negotiations over the terms of Brexit or warn that it faces the prospect of Britain's disorderly departure on October 31 -- the date it is due to leave.

European leaders have repeatedly rejected reopening an accord agreed by May last year but then rejected by British lawmakers on three occasions, despite Johnson's threats that the country will leave then without an agreement.

In an apparent show of intent, London announced Sunday that it had ordered the repeal of the European Communities Act, which took Britain into the forerunner to the EU 46 years ago and gives Brussels law supremacy.

The order, signed by Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay on Friday, is set to take effect on October 31.

"This is a landmark moment in taking back control of our laws from Brussels," Barclay said in a statement.

"This is a clear signal to the people of this country that there is no turning back -- we are leaving the EU as promised on October 31, whatever the circumstances -- delivering on the instructions given to us in 2016."

The moves come as Johnson faces increasing pressure to immediately recall MPs from their summer holidays so that parliament can debate Brexit.

More than 100 lawmakers, who are not due to return until September 3, have demanded in a letter that he reconvene the 650-seat House of Commons and let them sit permanently until October 31.

"Our country is on the brink of an economic crisis, as we career towards a no-deal Brexit," said the letter, signed by MPs and opposition party leaders who want to halt a no-deal departure.

"We face a national emergency, and parliament must be recalled now."

Parliament is set to break up again shortly after it returns, with the main parties holding their annual conferences during the September break.

Main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to call a vote of no confidence in Johnson's government after parliament returns.

He hopes to take over as a temporary prime minister, seek an extension to Britain's EU departure date to stop a no-deal Brexit, and then call a general election.

"What we need is a government that is prepared to negotiate with the European Union so we don't have a crash-out on the 31st," Corbyn said Saturday.

"This government clearly doesn't want to do that."

Britain could face food, fuel and medicine shortages and chaos at its ports in a no-deal Brexit, The Sunday Times newspaper reported, citing a leaked government planning document.

There would likely be some form of hard border imposed on the island of Ireland, the document implied.

Rather than worst-case scenarios, the leaked document, compiled this month by the Cabinet Office ministry, spells out the likely ramifications of a no-deal Brexit, the broadsheet claimed.

The document said logjams could affect fuel distribution, while up to 85 percent of trucks using the main ports to continental Europe might not be ready for French customs.

The availability of fresh food would be diminished and prices would go up, the newspaper said.