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Friday, 4 July 2008

Ingrid Betancourt - a heroine's homecoming

When the 'plane carrying Ingrid Betancourt touches down on French soil later this afternoon she can expect to be welcomed "home" as a heroine.

Quite simply put, Betancourt has become a symbol of endurance in France during her years of captivity and the statements she has made since her release will only have added to her stature.

The reports first started filtering through on Wednesday afternoon here that Ingrid had been released from over six years of captivity and the France had what can perhaps only be termed as its own Kennedy or Diana moment.

The news had many people glued to their screens as the story was later confirmed and the first pictures appeared. There were reports of people "'crying with joy" and comments of a "general feeling of relief" for Betancourt and her family. Indeed those were the very words used by the French prime minister, François Fillion.

Regular programming was interrupted on both the major national TV channels, experts hauled in for their analysis and there were blow-by-blow accounts of the six plus long years of Betancourt's time spent as a hostage of Colombia's leftist rebel movement The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc.

It's not difficult to understand why Betancourt has become something of a national heroine here in France. Since she was first kidnapped back in 2002 while campaigning for the presidency of Colombia in a Farc-controlled area of that country her plight has never been far from the news.

Her two children - recently based in Paris - have been tireless campaigners for the release of their mother, as has her sister.

There have been marches, demonstrations, vigils and appeals from celebrities for her release over the past six years. Large posters of her face have hung from the entrances of dozens of French city and town halls - most notably Paris.

While not always making the headlines of the national press or television there has been constant behind-the-scenes pressure from consecutive French governments for her release. And there has been a persistent media campaign.

Before this week's events it's probably hard to imagine that people in any other European country would have so easily made the connection between Betancourt, Farc and Colombia.

And to a great extent the campaign for her freedom was increased when the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, took the unusual step of making her release one of his foreign policy objectives when he first came to office in May last year.

He backed up that promise by making two broadcast appeals directly to the Farc leadership, sending his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, to Colombia, and having medical 'plane on standby here in France ready to leave at any moment.

France might not ultimately have been involved directly in her eventual release, but Betancourt's gratitude for the role the country had played was evident from the very first statements she made from the tarmac shortly after her release.

She thanked both the former French president Jacques Chirac, and one of his prime ministers and her close personal friend, Dominique de Villepin.

Neither man can be counted as one of Sarkozy's favourite people. On the contrary de Villepin is currently embroiled in the Clearstream affair in which it is claimed he tried to defame the character of Sarkozy in the run up to the centre-right Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, (Union for a Popular Movement, UMP) party's nomination of a candidate for the 2007 presidential election.

But differences aside, each man has undoubtedly played an important role in keeping the campaign for her release very much alive.

French interest can also be explained in the family ties Betancourt has to France. She has dual French-Colombian nationality through her first marriage, and her own family is of French origin. She and her sister, Astrid, spent many of their formative years in Paris, where they were brought up and educated, and Betancourt completed her studies at the prestigious Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris (commonly referred to as Sciences Po) in the French capital.

Of course there has also been the inevitable backlash against the almost blanket news coverage since Betancourt's release. Some - perhaps mean-spirited people - have complained about the number of column inches and air time given to the story since Wedesday. And certainly in this age of rolling news with everyone desperate to find a new "angle" there seems to have been little else making the headlines.

But the long and the short of it is that the French do care. This is a story that they have been following for many years now. "Betancourt" and "Farc" have probably meant a great deal more to the average person on the street here in France than throughout the rest of Europe simply because the story has never really gone away.

Those who have called radio 'phone-ins to bemoan the amount of air time the story has received have in a sense simply added to the story by providing a new - albeit somewhat distasteful perhaps - angle in suggesting that Betancourt knew the risks she was taking in the first place when she entered the Farc-controlled area of Colombia.

Last year's defeated Socialist candidate in the presidential elections, Ségolène Royal, probably won't have done herself many favours on either the Right or the Left after she suggested that Sarkozy has been milking Betancourt's release for all the media publicity it's worth.

While it's certainly true that Sarkozy could do with a boost in his approval ratings - he's currently hovering at the mid-30s level - he has been hogging the limelight a lot less than he did when he helped secure the release of the Bulgarian nurses and doctor from a Libyan prison at the beginning of his presidency.

Admiration for Betancourt in France runs deep and there's no doubting that the country views her as a modern-day heroine, in particular for the way in which she handled herself during her captivity and the humility and dignity she has shown since her release.

She has not the world forget that there are still 700 hostages held by Farc and her statement that "It's time for me to thank the French, to tell them I admire them, that I feel proud to be French as well," will guarantee that welcome "home" she so richly deserves.

Ingrid Betancourt, interviewed on French public television, France 2, on her captivity, release and joy at seeing her family again.

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