By Chine Labbé
VALENCIENNES, France (Reuters) - As France wrestles with questions of security and immigration during its presidential election campaign, a Belgian playwright is using his art as a weapon in the fight against radicalization.
Ismael Saidi, 40, has an unexpected hit with his dark comedy "Jihad", which follows three men on their hapless journey from Brussels' Schaerbeek district to Homs in Syria.
"I've written this play to say 'That's enough, it has to stop'," says Saidi, a Muslim. "It's now become more than a play, it's become a real social issue."
France was traumatized by violence including a truck attack that killed 86 people in Nice last July and coordinated attacks in Paris in November 2015 when 130 people died.
Saidi says writing was a way to "free himself" of the guilt he felt, having dodged the trap some of his acquaintances fell into.
He says militants recruited boys like him to fight in Afghanistan when he was a teenager living in Schaerbeek and years later, in 2014, a former classmate posted a photo on Facebook holding a rifle in Syria.
The departure of about 700 French citizens to fight for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has also made terrorism and immigration important issues in France's presidential race.
Centrist Emmanuel Macron, the front-runner, has proposed setting up detention centers to "re-socialise" jihadists returning from Syriaand Iraq.
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen would expel all foreigners linked to Islamist fundamentalism, while conservative Francois Fillon has repeatedly warned of the risk of French Muslims being radicalized.
The government, which estimates 11,500 people are radicalized in France, plans to spend 15 million euros ($19 million) this year on preventing radicalization, up from around one million euros in 2014. It's unclear if those funds will remain in place after the presidential election.
The current campaign includes websites to raise awareness of recruitment techniques.
Critics say the government has not delivered a coherent strategy to counter radicalization among France's five-million Muslims.
But government officials say state-sponsored programs must be supplemented by private projects, such as Saidi's play, which has drawn large crowds in its two-year tour of France and Belgium.
More than 700 secondary-school students saw it recently in the northern French city of Valenciennes.
"With plays like that, we can really make change happen," said 16-year-old Sarah Moussaddak.
Muriel Domenach, who leads government efforts to prevent radicalization, supports the initiative.
"Making Daesh (Islamic State) uncool is very important,” she said.
Some experts argue former jihadists are the only ones who can reach people at risk.
"They have lived it from the inside, they know the invisible threads of jihadi utopia," says French anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who until last year helped the government train local authorities to fight radicalization.
David Vallat, who appears in one government online counter-radicalization campaign, was jailed for five years in the 1990s for joining networks linked to Algeria's Armed Islamic Group.
He had previously traveled to Bosnia and Afghanistan. Now, the 45-year-old project manager from Lyon wants to spend all his time telling his story. But Vallat says that without public funding, he cannot make his voice heard.
French authorities are reluctant to work closely with former jihadists, wary about whether their reform is sincere.
Last year, Bouzar tried to persuade the government to work with Farid Benyettou, the infamous ex-mentor of the Kouachi brothers, who attacked satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, killing 12 people. Her proposal was rejected.
"The government is too timid," says Bouzar. "Even the best imam, the best psychologist or the best teacher cannot instill doubts about something he hasn't lived."
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(Editing by Adrian Croft and Julia Glover)