Since 2003, militants in North Africa have regularly kidnapped Westerners, including French nationals. The militant group most responsible was the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which merged with al-Qa`ida in 2006 and was renamed al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007.[1] In most of these cases, France appeared to negotiate with the hostage-takers.[2] Despite French denials, Paris has been accused of paying ransoms to free French hostages in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Mali Vicki Huddleston, for example, France paid a ransom of $17 million in 2010 in an attempt to free four French hostages kidnapped by AQIM.[3]

Yet toward the end of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s term in office, France’s policy on kidnappings began to harden. Under French President Francois Hollande, who assumed office in May 2012, France made clear that it would no longer negotiate with kidnappers, and force would be used to rescue hostages when possible.

This article examines the origins of this evolution. It then questions the political capacity of assuming a new hard line against kidnappers. It finds that France’s new aggressive policy against kidnapping incidents will be challenging to maintain, as the recent kidnapping of a French family in Cameroon demonstrates.

The Germaneau Precedent
France’s policy on kidnappings abroad changed after AQIM kidnapped humanitarian aid worker Pierre Camatte in November 2009. In February 2010, Sarkozy’s determined activism to secure his release led to a diplomatic crisis in the region. Sarkozy placed diplomatic pressure on Amadou Toumani Touré, the president of Mali,[4] to agree to the kidnappers’ demands, an act that both undermined Bamako and exposed France to severe criticism from its partners and allies in the region, especially from Algeria.[5] Algeria’s claim to regional counterterrorism leadership rests officially on the rejection of any kind of negotiation with kidnappers and on the fight against ransom payments.[6]

After this incident, France launched a military raid in July 2010 to try to free another hostage, Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old humanitarian worker kidnapped by AQIM in northern Niger.[7] In a break with tradition,[8] the raid was authorized after negotiations failed,[9] giving legitimacy to a joint Franco-Malian military operation around Kidal in northern Mali, where the hostage had been spotted. The kidnappers murdered Germaneau in response to the raid.[10] Nevertheless, Sarkozy announced the action as a “major turning point” with the intent of breaking from French and European “traditions” in the way such incidents were handled previously.[11] Sarkozy also said that from that point forward, “paying ransoms and freeing prisoners in exchange for innocent victims cannot be the (appropriate) strategy,”[12] thus turning this precedent into the guiding principle of French policy.

In January 2011, France again intervened militarily to try to free hostages. A joint French-Nigerien operation intercepted a convoy of militants—who had just recently abducted two Frenchmen in Niamey—before they could reach northern Mali.[13] Although both hostages died during the assault, the operation confirmed the “turning point” in France’s management of hostage crises. France’s goal was to rely on the local armed forces and intervene before the militants reached the relative safety of northern Mali, and thus avoid being drawn into negotiations. Alain Juppe, the French minister of defense at the time, justified France’s actions, stating that “doing nothing meant running a double risk: the risk of seeing our hostages taken by their abductors to one of their refuges in the Sahel—and we know how they treat them—and a more global risk in that doing nothing would send the signal that France is no longer fighting terrorism.”[14]

France’s new hard line policy did not, however, occur abruptly. In September 2010, AQIM kidnapped seven expatriate workers abducted from the Arlit uranium mine in Niger. Five months later, three of the workers were released, allegedly after a ransom was paid.[15] Despite official denials, a number of testimonies have confirmed the initial allegations of negotiations by France, with the two companies as intermediaries, leading to the exchange of money.[16] Two French ministers of parliament expressed their concerns in a report on security in the Sahel published in March 2012.[17] They called for a “clarification” of the French policy on ransoms “so as to break the spiral that leads to ever-increasing amounts being paid to hostage takers.”[18] They considered that “the French position, or rather the lack thereof, blurs the message of resolve she wishes to send.”[19]

Mali Crisis: The Point of No Return
In early 2013, France took a major shift when it intervened in northern Mali to unseat AQIM-affiliated militants who had taken control of the region. As Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, explained, France could not allow northern Mali to become a “Sahelistan,” where militants could kidnap Westerners, move them to the relative safe haven of northern Mali, and then make ransom or other demands.[20] France pushed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing the use of force in Mali, and Paris called for the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity and constitutional order.

As the first French troops were deployed to start Operation Serval in Mali, French special forces attempted to rescue a French intelligence operative held by al-Shabab in Somalia since 2009. Despite the raid’s failure, the rescue mission demonstrated France’s new hard line policy against all terrorist groups, including those in Somalia.[21]

The attack on the In Amenas gas site by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group[22] on January 16, 2013, five days after the launch of Operation Serval, gave the French government another opportunity to reaffirm its unfaltering resolve in such circumstances. As Hollande expressed his support for the somewhat controversial decision by the Algerian armed forces to intervene, he reiterated that “there could be no negotiation” with hostage-takers.[23]

Such statements are also meant for the kidnappers; counterpropaganda is part of France’s new weaponry of war. “Protecting our nationals, fighting against terrorism, securing our hostages’ release, there is no contradiction in all that,” Hollande told the press in December 2012. “But I say to the [AQIM-affiliated] hostage takers [who are holding a number of French nationals]: it is time you released them!”[24]

In official discourse, France now refuses to concede that foreign policy choices impact the motives of militants or kidnappers. According to France, the latest abduction of French nationals in Cameroon was unrelated to the French intervention in Mali despite the kidnappers’ claims.[25]

In two successive statements sent to the media at the end of March 2013, AQIM said it executed Daniel Verdon, a French hostage captured in northern Mali two years ago, in retaliation for France’s intervention in Mali.[26] AQIM warned that its other French captives were at risk. The information has not yet been officially confirmed, but the French government suggested that the hostage could have died as a result of disease—and not killed at the hands of AQIM—in perhaps another attempt to dissociate the military intervention from the hostages’ fate, further establishing France’s new hard line policy on kidnappings.[27]

The majority of citizens and the political class support “Hollande’s method,” but this backing remains fragile. Nothing proves that it will survive the death of other hostages, new kidnappings or terrorist attacks targeting France’s interests and nationals. To secure its success, France’s new policy on kidnappings also includes pressure on hostages’ families to keep both confidentiality and confidence in the state’s efforts to free their relatives despite the temptation of publicizing their cases.[28] It is, however, not clear whether private companies will in all cases “play by the rules” and refrain from paying ransoms. Such an injunction might be perceived as state interference in their business activities and internal management.

For now, the real challenge for Hollande’s presidency is to maintain its hard line policy on kidnappings despite obvious pressures. An exception to this new policy on kidnappings would discredit France’s engagement in Mali, its commitment to fighting terrorism, and encourage more kidnap-for-ransom incidents in Africa.

The recent hostage release of an executive from the French power company GDF Suez and his family, who had been abducted in northern Cameroon on February 19, 2013, already raises questions, as it appears that France may have made an exception to the doctrine. Hollande said in a press conference that secret talks had been taking place for the past few weeks to help secure their release, but that neither France nor GDF Suez paid a ransom to free them.[29]

Cameroonian media sources, however, revealed on April 25, 2013, that approximately 16 Boko Haram members were freed in exchange for the family’s release, and a ransom of $5-7 million was allegedly paid.[30] The origin of the payment is still unclear, but according to Cameroonian sources, it may include both Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s funds as well as indirect funding from GDF Suez.[31] Should that information be confirmed, it may jeopardize the objectives of France’s new hard line policy against kidnappings and may only encourage such acts in the future.

Anne Giudicelli is a consultant and the founder of TERRORISC, a consulting organization in political and security risks, strategic issues and decision-making. She worked in the Middle East section of the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs for eight years, in Paris as well as in other countries. After 9/11, Ms. Giudicelli has been in charge of analysis of terrorism and Islamism in the Middle East and North Africa.

[1] In February 2003, the GSPC kidnapped 32 European tourists in the south of Algeria. Some were freed in May 2003 in Algeria, and the rest in August 2003 in Mali.

[2] Due to a lack of formal evidence confirming such practices, the only common European doctrine boiled down to never officially mentioning the existence of counterparties granted to the kidnappers, a fortiori when it comes to ransom.

[3] “France ‘Paid $17 Million’ Ransom for Mali Hostages,” France24, February 8, 2013.

[4] In February 2010, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner flied twice to Bamako, along with the Elysee’s general secretary, Claude Guéant, on the second trip. French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the Malian capital himself to bring Pierre Camatte back home on February 25.

[5] According to several testimonies, four Islamists were  released from prison in Mali, as demanded by Camatte’s kidnappers. France also reportedly compensated the Malian government financially in gratitude for its assistance in resolving the Camatte case. Both Mauritania and Algeria criticized the Malian authorities for having consented to free four alleged terrorists—two Algerians, one Burkinabe and one Mauritanian. In protest of Bamako’s attitude, Nouakchott and Algiers recalled their ambassadors in Bamako. President Sarkozy denied any diplomatic crisis while President Touré emphasized in return the persistent lack of a common action plan among regional partners in the fight against terrorism.

[6] Algiers has obtained approval from the Security Council to add a clause to Resolution 1906 adopted in December 2009 criminalizing the payment of ransoms to terrorists groups.

[7] “Al-Qa`ida Kills French Hostage,” al-Jazira, July 26, 2010.

[8] Before the Germaneau case, the only similar incident occurred in April 2008 when French troops launched a successful assault on Somali pirates, who had seized the French yacht Le Ponan and its 30 crewmembers in the Gulf of Aden, while they were attempting to flee in the desert. The ship’s owner had previously paid a 1.7 million euro ransom to free the crew, and the French operation ocurred after the pirates freed the hostages. In the Germaneau case, however, the raid occurred while the hostage was still in the hands of the kidnappers, which differed from the April 2008 incident in Somalia. For details, see Angela Doland, “French Troops Attack Somali Pirates After 30 Hostages Freed,” Washington Post, April 12, 2008.

[9] Critics denounced a policy of double standards regarding the state’s mobilization to negotiate with hostage-takers, arguing that the state only attempted to free hostages based on political interests or the personal profile of the specific hostage. According to these critics, Michel Germaneau was “less valuable” than Pierre Camatte, as the latter was an ex-Legion member and close to the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner.

[10] “French Hostage ‘Executed’ After Raid on al-Qaeda Base,” France24, July 26, 2010.

[11] In May 2006, the Times of London stated that France, Italy and Germany agreed to pay $45 million in a deal to free nine of its hostages kidnapped in Iraq. France allegedly paid $25 million between December 2004 and June 2005 for the release of three journalists. As for the Sahel zone, according to the assertions of Algerian authorities in September 2010, Madrid allegedly paid a total of $10.3 million for the release of three Spanish hostages in March and August 2010, Italy $4.7 million for the release of two hostages in the hands of AQIM in May of the same year, and Austria $3.2 million for two hostages in April 2009.

[12] Nicolas Sarkozy, “Opening Speech of the 18th Conference of French Ambassadors,” Elysée Palace, August 25, 2010.

[13] The two Frenchmen were Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory, both 25-years-old. De Léocour was working for an NGO in Niger.

[14] Alain Juppe, interview for the French TV channel TF1, January 9, 2011.

[15] “France ‘Paid $17 Million’ Ransom for Mali Hostages.”

[16] According to Vicki Huddleston, the former U.S. ambassador to Mali, France paid $17 million to free French hostages seized in Niger in 2010. In an interview aired on February 8, 2013, she said that “the ransoms, like other ransoms, were paid indirectly, ended in the hands of the Malian government and were turned over, at least part of it, to the Salafis.” Other sources had earlier mentioned an amount of $13 million. See Angus MacKinnon, “France Funded Mali Foes with Ransom Payments: US Envoy,” Agence France-Presse, February 8, 2013.

[17] “The Security Situation in the Countries of the Sahel  Zone,” information report addressed March 2012 to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Assembly by Francois Loncle (PS) and Henri Plagnol (UMP).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Laurent Fabius started to use the word “Sahelistan” in July 2012 to describe the situation in Mali as the next terrorist sanctuary if no military action was conducted.

[21] According to French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the failed rescue mission in January 12, 2013, cost the life of the hostage, who was killed by his captors during the assault. A French soldier was killed and another went missing and may have been killed. An estimated 17 members of the Somali al-Shabab militant group were also killed. See Jamey Keaten and Abdi Guled, “French Commando Killed in Somalia Hostage Raid,” Associated Press, January 12, 2013.

[22] Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former member of AQIM, broke from the group in December 2012 and created his own militant unit, Those Who Sign in Blood.

[23] “Hollande: Talks were Not an Option in Algeria Hostage Crisis,” Reuters, January 19, 2013.

[24] “Otages : «la parole crédible» n’est pas celle des ravisseurs, dit Hollande,” Liberation, December 27, 2012.

[25] “Rapts de 7 Français: Boko Haram responsable, pas de lien avec le Mali, selon Paris,” Mali Actualités, April 29, 2013.

[26] “Qaeda Says French Hostage Executed in Mali,” Agence France-Presse, March 20, 2013.

[27] The French government said that intercepted phone conversations between the kidnappers suggested that Verdon may have died of natural causes before his supposed execution. Verdon suffered from a number of health complications. See “L’otage Philippe Verdon serait mort de maladie,” Le Parisien, April 6, 2013.

[28] Such an approach has been used in the case of two recent kidnappings in Afghanistan (a freelance photographer in November 2012 and a humanitarian worker in January 2013) for whom French officials had made no previous public statement regarding their capture. According to the French daily newspaper Le Monde, both families were warned that the policy of paying ransoms was over and that they were not allowed to act on their own. The photographer said he escaped on April 8. As for the French humanitarian, who was freed the same day, conditions of his release remain unclear.

[29] In a presidential communique released on April 19,  Hollande thanked “the Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities, which worked to achieve this outcome, and particularly [Cameroonian] President Biya in close cooperation with France.”

[30] “Libération des otages français: que s’est-il vraiment passé?” Journal du Cameroun, April 25, 2013.

[31] Ibid.

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