The reaction to the dramatic rescue of Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others this week has received some unusual coverage in the European press, quite different from that in the US. If one didn’t know the back story behind this situation they might think the coverage downright bizarre.
Betancourt is due to arrive in Paris at any moment to greet French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The meeting is largely required by political necessity, as Sarkozy and his predecessors had made the release of Betancourt one of France’s top diplomatic priorities, and Sarkozy has been working tirelessly for a diplomatic solution between the Colombian government and FARC, the leftist guerilla militia that took her hostage. Betancourt is a dual French and Colombian citizen.But the pleasantries that will be exchanged at the Elysee Palace tonight mask an embarrassing reality for France: in the end it was not France’s tireless diplomatic efforts that rescued Betancourt but a US-backed military operation in which France had no involvement whatsoever. That has to be a tough pill for the country to swallow.
The Colombian government, a US-backed rightist regime that has fiery relations with leftist governments in neighboring countries, was never a natural partner for France to be working with in the first place. But given that Betancourt - a former Colombian presidential candidate for an ecological party - is a French citizen, France felt a duty to find a solution to her captivity. But France’s tactic was chiefly diplomatic, trying to negotiate a settlement between FARC, which has historically been backed by the Leftist governments in Venezuela and Ecuador, and the Columbian government, treating FARC as a political group rather than a terrorist organization and putting faith in Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to act as a mediator with them. Instead, the United States (which had three citizens as hostages alongside Betancourt) swooped in and coordinated a military rescue with Colombia's president Álvaro Uribe in an operation that even had Israeli operational assistance.
With this in mind it’s hardly surprising that the reaction by French-speaking European media has been markedly different than that in the US, where coverage has been glowing for the “ingenious” Colombian operation. US coverage has frequently been calling FARC a “terrorist group” and emphasized its connection with the drug trade.
In France, Belgium and Switzerland, press coverage has ranged from impressed to critical to delusional. As the Economist recounts, center-left French newspaper Libération, which has been a vocal champion for Betancourt’s release over the years, could barely bring itself to congratulate the Colombian government, even publishing an editorial criticising the Colombian president and lamenting the fact that the rescue will allow the country’s right-wing president to make the argument that only force will work against FARC, and the rescue will likely lead to a no-holds-barred military assault on the group. Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique went so far as to accuse the Colombian government of orchestrating a public relations conspiracy with the rescue, arguing that the government may have been able to pull this off for many years but waited until the present time because the president has been experiencing political trouble and a challenge to his rule by the courts.
Meanwhile the rightist papers in France have taken a different tact, somehow crediting France with the rescue even though France had nothing to do with it. This is the line being offered by Sarkozy and his UMP party, with a spokesman saying that France had “done all it could to obtain this result,” a statement which seems to sneakily infer that France is somehow responsible for this outcome. The spokesman even makes the claim that, "The obstinacy of President Sarkozy to have our fellow-citizen freed was without any doubt the determining element,” (translated by the Economist). The rightist newspaper Le Figaro, took the cue, and declared the rescue “a personal victory for Nicolas Sarkozy.”
Though the reaction of the non-Francophone media hasn’t swallowed UMP’s narrative, they have also expressed greater trepidation and skepticism about the rescue than their American counterparts. The consensus across Europe seems to be that, though the rescue was impressive in its orchestration, the method by which Betancourt was eventually freed is bad news for the Left in Latin America because it will serve to strengthen Colombia’s right-wing government and perhaps give it license to enter into military hostilities with its neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador. This is a reality that the US press has largely ignored.