To Pay or Not to Pay? The French Hostage Dilemma

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 30

Hervé Ghesquière (left) and Stéphane Taponier (right), two recently released French hostages.

After 18 months in captivity, the Taliban released Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier on June 29. The two journalists from the French public television channel France Télévision were taken hostage on December 30, 2009 as they were working on a documentary on reconstruction in Afghanistan. The French press and the political establishment greeted the news with obvious elation. [1] The two journalists were not party to the conflict and were simply documenting history in the making.   As such, the press described them as innocent pawns in a broader grand strategic game and as victims who should not be sacrificed.   

However, after the relief and the self-congratulation, the central question of “why did the Taliban release the hostages” and “what did they get in return” quickly came to the forefront of the debate.

Weary of fueling the “kidnapping-for-ransom business model,” French Government officials repeatedly denied the payment of any ransom.  “France does not pay ransoms,” claimed Alain Juppé, the French Foreign Minister, echoed by the Elysée Palace and the Minister of Economy and Finance François Baroin (L’Express, June 30).  The trouble is, nobody really believes the official version.  Security expert Gérard de Villiers said that the government would deny it, but “I don’t know of any hostage liberation without the payment of a ransom” (Atlantico.fr, June 30). Frédéric Helbert, a security consultant for the private channel BFM TV, went even further. Based on unnamed sources, he described in great detail how an envelope containing “several million dollars” was handed over to the kidnappers as they released the two journalists to the French authorities, exchanged into local currency and sent back to the Taliban’s Quetta Shura in Pakistan (BFM TV, June 29; L’Express, June 30).  

It was not the first time that France has been rumored to pay a ransom in exchange for its citizens.  The London Times, citing Baghdad security officials “who played a crucial role in the negotiations,” claimed the French government paid $15 million to obtain the liberation of Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot in Iraq in December 2004 and another $10 million to obtain the liberation of Florence Aubenas in Iraq six months later in June 2005 (Times, May 22, 2006).  

However, after his election in 2007, President Sarkozy clearly indicated that he wanted to distance his government from such practices, advocating instead a resolute opposition to paying ransoms or exchanging prisoners. In August 2009, he declared: “Paying ransoms and swapping prisoners for harmless innocents is no strategy at all,” adding that France must “refuse the terrorists’ diktat” (Rue89.com, January 15).

However, a closer look at the French government’s practices since his election shows that the government’s actions are less resolute than its words and that different circumstances yield different remedies.
 
• In April 2008, Somali pirates seized a French luxury cruise yacht, the Ponant, off the coast of Somalia.  The owner of the yacht, GMA-CGM of France, paid a ransom of over $2 million for the 30 crew members, part of which was recovered in Opération Thalatine, a raid on the pirates in the north-central Mudug region of Somalia by French Commandos marine (Naval Commandos) based in Djibouti. Six pirates were captured in the helicopter raid and brought to France for trial.

• A year later, the French government launched a successful assault on the Tanit, a luxury sailboat also taken off the coast of Somalia, after the pirates refused the offer of a ransom (Times, April 12, 2009). One hostage was killed in the crossfire during the assault by the Commando Hubert, the frogman unit of the Commandos marine, supported by French and German warships. Three pirates were arrested in the operation.

• Denis Allex is one of two Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE – French external intelligence) agents kidnapped from a Mogadishu hotel in July, 2009 (see Terrorism Monitor, July 30, 2009).  Though his colleague escaped from his Hizb al-Islam captors only a month later, Allex continues to be held by al-Shabaab somewhere within Somalia. Al-Shabaab has released two videotaped sets of demands, as read by Allex himself. In both cases the demands were political (prisoner release, cessation of French support for the Transitional Federal Government, withdrawal of African Union peacekeepers, etc) rather than financial (al-Qimmah.com, July 18, 2009; AFP, June 9, 2010). [2]

• In July 2010, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) announced that it had killed hostage Michel Germaneau in retaliation for a Franco-Malian raid against one of its camps in northwestern Mali (al-Jazeera, July 26). In that case, Defense Minister Hervé Morin indicated that the French Government “didn’t have the slightest discussion with the kidnappers… We never had any specific claims” (La Dépêche du Midi, January 10, 2010; AFP, August 1).  However, AQIM chief Abdulmalik Droukdel claimed the raid was launched while negotiations for Germaneau were underway (see Terrorism Monitor, September 23, 2010).

• Finally, in January 2011, the government launched a raid to free two French citizens, Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory, who were kidnapped in Niamey, capital of Niger. Both were killed in northern Mali during an assault on the AQIM convoy transporting the prisoners by French and Nigérien troops (see Terrorism Monitor, January 28).

In contrast, the French government’s attitude toward the September 2010 kidnapping of seven employees and sub-contractors of AREVA by AQIM in Niger is much more ambivalent.  In that case, contacts have been established between the government and the kidnappers and a mediation team has been set up (La Dépêche du Midi, January 10, 2010). There are also reports that a ransom paid by AREVA secured the liberation of three of the seven hostages (Radio France Internationale, February 25). Most recently, in March 2011, AQIM released new demands asking for 90 million Euros and a prisoner swap in exchange for the four remaining hostages.  The French Foreign Minister immediately rejected the ransom demand on the grounds that “we don’t negotiate on that basis,” indicating that the price rather than the principle of ransom is the problem (La Dépêche du Midi, January 10). The DGSE special fund allocation for hostage rescue operations amounts to $53.9 million Euros for the fiscal year 2011 (Paris Match, July 1).  

Based on this recent history, the French government does not seem to have a consistent position on negotiating the release of hostages taken by pirates or terrorist groups. Nevertheless, the French government is equipped with a dedicated bureaucratic structure, a budget, and a strong political will to engage in negotiations to secure the release of French citizens. There is little doubt that French officials do not want to encourage hostage-taking by paying ransoms – President Sarkozy has made his feelings clear in that regard.  However, the collective desire to spare the lives of innocent victims taken hostage and/or to protect the economic and professional interests of large corporations clearly continues to push the government toward negotiating the release of French hostages.  

In the Taliban’s release of Ghesquière and Taponier in June, as well as the 2005-2006 cases of Chesnot, Malbrunot and Aubenas in Iraq, there was acknowledgement in the press that money was paid to either the hostage takers or intermediaries. There was, however, virtually no debate on the potential impact of paying ransoms to terrorist groups.  The absence of discussion about the impact of paying ransoms to terrorist groups or intermediaries indicates that President Sarkozy faces a steep uphill battle if he truly wants to end French practice of paying ransoms. There remain nine French nationals held hostage in the world. 

Notes:

1. See Prime Minister François Fillon before the National Assembly (French lower house of Parliament), 29 June 2011.  Available at http://www.bfmtv.com/video-infos-actualite/detail/taponier-et-ghesquiere-liberes-annonce-fillon-1426267/.
2. The second video is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKLtO7Zj7dw.