The French government has come under fire after Interior Minister Christophe Castaner reportedly said that jihadi fighters of French origin could be repatriated from Syria as US forces withdraw from that country.
“There are currently people in prison who are being held because the Americans are there and they are going to be released,” Castaner said in an interview Tuesday with CNN affiliate BFM TV.
“They will want to come back to France. What I want is for everyone who returns to France to be immediately handed over to justice.”
Castaner said, “They are French before being jihadists,” admitting that some have already returned to France and been arrested.
BFM TV reported the French fighters were expected to return in the coming weeks, numbering close to 130.
The French government has disputed that figure, saying it is “by no means confirmed.”
Castaner’s admission drew strong criticism from French opposition politicians, including the leader of the far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, who called on the minister to revoke the jihadis’ French citizenship.
“No @CCastaner! They are jihadists so they shouldn’t be French anymore,” Le Pen tweeted Tuesday.
Similar views were echoed Tuesday in the French Parliament, where lawmaker Valérie Boyer of the conservative Les Républicains party, called on the interior minister and government to “stop these jihadists from coming back to France under the pretense they once held a French passport, which they have burnt in the meantime anyway.”
‘Brought to justice’
Seeking to reassure lawmakers after his interview, Castaner said that if French jihadis were to be expelled from Syria, “we know who they are, where they are and if they set foot in France, they would immediately be arrested and brought to justice.”
Earlier Tuesday, the French Foreign Ministry explained that all options are on the table as it tries to prevent jihadis from escaping as US forces withdraw from Syria. President Donald Trump declared last month that US forces would be leaving Syria, surprising allies in the Middle East and beyond.
“Given the evolution of the military situation in northeastern Syria, American decisions, and in order to ensure the safety of French nationals, we are examining all options to avoid the escape and dispersal of these potentially dangerous individuals,” a foreign ministry representative said during a daily press briefing.
“These people have voluntarily joined a terrorist organization, which fights in the Levant, has committed attacks in France and continues to threaten us,” the representative said.
“If the forces currently detaining French fighters took the decision to expel them to France, those would immediately be brought to justice.”
CNN’s Sandrine Amiel reported from Paris, and Vasco Cotovio wrote in London.