How France turned an Iraq hostage into a cause célèbre

Florence Aubenas was released over the weekend after 157 days in captivity.

For five long months her face and name haunted France. Through constant reference in newspapers, on radio and television, by posters hung from town halls, and from statements by government ministers, Florence Aubenas became an absent friend to the whole country.

Tuesday, Ms. Aubenas spoke publicly for the first time since she was last seen on Jan. 5, leaving her hotel in Baghdad where she was working as a reporter for the daily Libération. She had been kidnapped and was forced to spend 157 days bound and blindfolded in a dark cellar before being freed over the weekend.

Aubenas said that her captors imposed a daily limit of 80 spoken words and 24 paces to go to the bathroom. Despite her ordeal, Aubenas cracked jokes with reporters and described how she kept her courage up.

"It's not a question of holding on or not. You are there and that's it," Aubenas said. "People in France hung on as well. Courage is releasing balloons and things like that ... to support someone for 157 days without giving up."

As with hostage releases in Italy, questions have surfaced about whether a ransom was paid. The government has made token denials, but most here quietly assume otherwise. However, this has not provoked much controversy.

"If it takes paying money to save a life, people here think it's worth it," says Robert Ménard, president of Reporters Without Borders, the journalists' group that led the campaign for Aubenas's release. Some governments have a policy of not paying ransoms because it is seen as encouraging hostage-taking.

Aubenas's plight was hardly unique. According to the Brookings Institution in Washington, 95 foreign hostages in Iraq have been released since May, 2003; 49 remain captive. And Aubenas was only the latest in a long line of French kidnapping victims stretching back to Beirut in 1985.

But the public response to her plight was enormous. "Never in 20 years have I seen such mobilization" says Mr. Ménard. "People were ringing up from the smallest villages asking for badges and posters."

All across France, Aubenas's lively, smiling face - and that of her Iraqi assistant Hussein Hanoun, also now released - looked out from giant portraits hung from public buildings. Local support groups organized petitions, staged mass balloon launches, held relay races, put on poetry readings and concerts, planned an ascent of Mont Blanc, persuaded soccer fans to hold up huge banners. Every day, their pictures appeared on the front page of Libération. On the morning and evening news, TV and radio announcers recalled "Florence and Hussein."

Aubenas said that she was heartened to learn of this national support some two weeks ago when her captors removed her blindfold and allowed her to watch French TV. She noticed "Florence and Hussein" scroll across the ticker, followed by "140" - the tally of her days in captivity.

"I was so moved I could not get up," said Aubenas. She praised the campaigners, saying: "When I couldn't talk, they talked for me. When I had my hands tied, they fought for me."

The transformation of Aubenas into a cause célèbre contrasted strikingly with the anonymity of the four US hostages currently held in Iraq, and with the public opprobrium heaped on a kidnapped Japanese aid worker.

The scale of public sympathy for Aubenas and Mr. Hanoun "is a bit of a mystery," says Ménard.

For some, it was the sympathetic ear she had always lent to "little people," that drew their attention. "She is well known and well liked," says William Stubbs, a chiropodist, sipping coffee at a Paris bar. "Her character played in her favor, and of course she was a journalist, which meant the media played up the story."

Other observers see a broader explanation. "The French have this feeling that we should carry a certain number of universal messages to the world, including the value of freedom of expression," says Stéphane Rozès, an analyst with the CSA polling firm. "Journalists are the incarnation of that freedom."

At the same time, he suggests, the deep rifts that opened up in French society during the debate over the proposed European Constitution found some healing in the campaign for Aubenas and Hanoun. "We can go through fierce debate, and then find national reconciliation," says Mr. Rozes.

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