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French hostage released after four years of captivity in Mali

A French aid worker kidnapped in Mali in 2016 and the country's main opposition leader have landed to emotional reunions with their families after their release, along with two Italian hostages.

French hostage released after four years of captivity in Mali
Sophie Petronin was kidnapped in 2016. Photo: AFP

A white-robed Sophie Petronin, 75, the last French citizen known to be held hostage anywhere in the world since her abduction in 2016, was embraced by her son as she touched down in Mali's capital, Bamako.

Politician Soumaila Cisse, a three-time presidential candidate and former opposition leader, was also hugged by loved ones and greeted by cheering crowds on his way home.

“It was a difficult period, but it has been overcome,” the white-robed Cisse, 70, told AFP.

Italian priest Pier Luigi Maccalli, who was abducted in neighbouring Niger in 2018, and Nicola Chiacchio, who went missing last year during a solo bicycle trip, were also freed.

Mali's government has not revealed the circumstances of the releases, which follow talks with the hostage-takers. Malian authorities freed more than 100 prisoners over the weekend.

 

After first emerging in northern Mali in 2012, a brutal jihadist insurgency has spread to the centre of the country as well as Burkina Faso and Niger.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Kidnappings are also common.

French President Emmanuel Macron voiced “immense relief” at the release of Petronin, and said he would welcome her back to France.

A frail-looking Petronin, who is known as 'Mama Sophie' and dedicated years of her life to a charity for malnourished children, was twirled in a cirle by her son, Sebastien Chadaud, as she descended from the plane.

Footage shared on social media also showed the mother and son with their foreheads pressed together, with Petronin telling him: “You were there by my side telling me, hang in there.”

The government's move to free prisoners over the weekend had sparked speculation of a swap for her and Cisse.

In an unexpected development, the prime minister's office also announced Thursday that two Italian nationals had also been freed. It was not immediately clear whether they had arrived in Bamako on the same flight.

Petronin was abducted by gunmen on December 24, 2016, in the northern city of Gao, where she worked for the children's charity.

Cisse was kidnapped on March 25 while campaigning in his home region of Niafounke, central Mali, ahead of parliamentary elections.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Defence Minister Lorenzo Guerini and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio all hailed the release of the Italians, who Di Maio said were well.

Speaking to reporters, Petronin thanked the Malian and French governments for their help in securing the release.

“For Mali, I will pray and implore the blessing and the mercy of Allah, because I am a Muslim,” she said.

“You say Sophie, but it's Mariam, you have before you,” she added.

Petronin appeared in good spirits following her release, despite concerns about her health after a 2018 hostage video showed her looking emaciated.

The footage triggered alarm among her family members, who pressured Macron to negotiate with her captors.

France's president several times said his services were working “tirelessly” for Petronin's release.

“To her family, to her loved ones, I send a message of sympathy,” Macron tweeted, adding: “The fight against terrorism in the Sahel continues”.

Mali's former colonial power France has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane.

One of the hostage negotiators, who requested anonymity, told AFP that the talks remained difficult to the end.

On Thursday, Mali's prime minister's office said the four hostages had been held by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims.

The alliance comprises several jihadist groups aligned to al-Qaeda, and has claimed responsibility for some of the biggest attacks in the Sahel.

Cisse told reporters that he had been informed of his imminent freedom on Monday. What happened between then and Thursday is unclear.

The prisoner release came with an interim government due to govern Mali for 18 months before staging elections, after a military junta overthrew president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August.

The kidnapping of former opposition leader Cisse was one of the factors that fuelled popular protests leading to the ouster of Keita over his perceived inability to crush the Islamist insurgency.

The intermediary involved in the negotiations told AFP on Thursday that releasing the prisoners was necessary.

“Yes, terrorists were released,” he said. “We had to obtain the release,” he added.

Several other hostages remain detained by militant groups in the Sahel.

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POLITICS

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers – French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

From coffee runs to rugby tickets and professional photos - France's election financing body has revealed some of the items it has refused to reimburse from the 2022 presidential race.

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers - French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

Spending on the election trail is tightly regulated in France, with maximum campaign spends per candidate as well as a list of acceptable expenses that can be reimbursed.

In France the State pays at least some of the election campaign costs, with the budget calculated according to how many votes the candidate ends up getting. 

READ MORE: 5 things to know about French election campaign financing

On Friday, the government body (la Commission nationale des comptes de campagne et des financements politiques – or CNCCFP) released its findings for the 12 candidates who ran in the April 2022 presidential campaign. 

All of the candidates had their accounts approved, but 11 out of the 12 were refused reimbursement on certain items. Here are some of the items that did not get CNCCFP approval;

Rugby tickets 

Jean Lassalle – the wildcard ‘pro farmer’ candidate who received about three percent of votes cast in the first round of the 2022 election – bought “19 tickets to attend a rugby match” according to the CNCCFP’s findings. The organisation said it would not be reimbursing the tickets and questioned “the electoral nature of the event”. 

The total cost of the tickets was €465 (or €24.50 each).

Too many coffees

Socialist candidate, and current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo reportedly spent at least €1,600 on coffee for her team during the campaign.

According to the CNCCFP, however, the caffeine needed to keep a presidential campaign running did not qualify under the country’s strict campaign financing rules.

Too many stickers

Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s was told that the 1.2 million stickers that were bought – to the tune of €28,875 – to advertise the campaign would not be reimbursed. Mélenchon justified the purchasing of the stickers – saying that in the vast majority of cases they were used to build up visibility for campaign events, but CNCCFP ruled that “such a large number” was not justified. 

Mélenchon was not the only one to get in trouble for his signage. Extreme-right candidate Éric Zemmour was accused of having put up over 10,000 posters outside official places reserved for signage. The same went for the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, who decided to appeal the CNCCFP’s decision not to reimburse €300,000 spent on putting posters of her face with the phrase “M la France” on 12 campaign buses.

Poster pictures

Emmanuel Macron – who won re-election in 2022 – will not be reimbursed for the €30,000 spent on a professional photographer Soazig de la Moissonière, who works as his official photographer and took the picture for his campaign poster. 

The CNCCFP said that Macron’s team had “not sufficiently justified” the expenditure.

Expensive Airbnbs

Green party member Yannick Jadot reportedly spent €6,048 on Airbnbs in the city of Paris for some of his campaign employees – an expense that the CNCCFP said that public funds would not cover.

Translating posters

The campaign finance body also refused to reimburse the Mélenchon campaign’s decision to translate its programme into several foreign languages at a cost of €5,398.

The CNCCFP said that they did not consider the translations to be “an expense specifically intended to obtain votes” in a French election.

Best and worst in class

The extreme-right pundit Zemmour had the largest amount of money not reimbursed. Zemmour created a campaign video that used film clips and historic news footage without permission and also appeared on CNews without declaring his candidacy – because of these two offences, CNCCFP has reduced his reimbursement by €200,000. He has been hit with a separate bill of €70,000 after he was found guilty of copyright infringement over the campaign video. 

The star pupil was Nathalie Arthaud, high-school teacher and candidate for the far-left Lutte Ouvriere party, who apparently had “completely clean accounts”. A CNCCFP spokesperson told Le Parisien that if all candidate accounts were like Arthauds’, then “we would be unemployed”.

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