French hostages head home, Paris says no ransom
Two French journalists headed home to a heroes' welcome on Wednesday after a 4-month hostage ordeal in Iraq which Paris said ended without a ransom being paid.
President Jacques Chirac interrupted a Christmas holiday in Morocco to return to Paris to address the nation and planned to be at a military airfield outside Paris later on Wednesday to greet the two journalists on their return home.
"We owe their release to the mobilization and unity of all the French people, to whom I want to pay homage," President Jacques Chirac said in the television address.
The seizure of the two men in Iraq on Aug. 20 had deeply shocked the French people and prompted a major publicity campaign which ensured their plight was not forgotten.
Family members were overjoyed. "It's a very beautiful Christmas present, the most beautiful Christmas present you could have," Chesnot's brother Thierry told reporters.
Details of their release were sketchy but, briefing party leaders, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said the conservative government had not bought the men's freedom.
"The prime minister said a number of things, notably that no ransom had been demanded and none was paid, and that the negotiations had always been conducted with intermediaries," said Francois Bayrou, leader of the center-right UDF party.
Opposition groups hailed the release but said the government must eventually explain its handling of the crisis.
France's close ties with the Arab world and its opposition to President Bush over the war in Iraq may have helped secure the journalists' release, but Chirac is sure to face questions about why it took so long.
"We must ask for explanations about all stages of their detention," said Francois Hollande, leader of the opposition Socialist Party. "Now their freedom has been secured, informing parliament about all the conditions of how the discussions have unfolded since August is the least thing that can be done."
French newspapers celebrated the reporters' release but some also reflected on the government's handling of the crisis in which it initially raised expectations of a quick release and then became increasingly cautious.
A freelance mediation effort by a member of Chirac's ruling conservative party failed to free the men in October. The fiasco led to angry exchanges in parliament although political leaders quickly closed ranks again.
"French diplomacy comes out of it damaged," said Liberation newspaper. "Its traditional Arab policy and non-alignment in the Bush crusade in Iraq did not protect it against the worst or impose it (France's view) on the international scene. It must draw the conclusions."
The group which kidnapped the two men, the Islamic Army in Iraq, initially demanded France dump a law banning the traditional Muslim headscarf in French state schools but made no new demands after the law went into force in September.
More than 120 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since April, of whom more than three dozen have been killed. Some, like Briton Kenneth Bigley and British-Iraqi Margaret Hassan, pleaded for their lives in videos released by their captors.