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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

‘Public opinion is ready’ – These French senators want to legalise marijuana

A group of 31 French senators of the Socialist, Green and Republican parties have come together to write a statement calling for the legalisation of marijuana in France.

'Public opinion is ready' - These French senators want to legalise marijuana

France is known for having some of the strictest laws regarding marijuana consumption in Europe – while simultaneously maintaining one of the highest rates of cannabis usage in the EU. 

A group of French senators – coming from the Socialist, Green and centre-right Les Républicains parties – are trying to change those laws, and have come together to call for marijuana to be legalised in France.

The group of 31 co-signed a statement published in French newspaper, Le Monde, on Wednesday, August 10th.

In the statement, the senators promised to launch a ‘consultation process’ to submit a bill to legalise marijuana “in the coming months.”

The proposition was headed by Senator Gilbert-Luc Devinaz, a member of the Socialist Party, and gained support from the party’s leader, Patrick Kanner.

READ MORE: The long and winding road towards changing France’s cannabis laws

A report by the Assemblé Nationale, which was published in May 2021, estimated that nearly 18 million French people (more than 25 percent of the population) had already consumed marijuana, and that an additional 1.5 million consume it regularly.

This, coupled with the 2019 finding that nearly one in two French people (45 percent) said they were in favour of legalisation, according to a survey by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT), helped strengthen the senators’ position.

“Public opinion is ready, the legislature must act,” they wrote.

Their senators argue that legalising marijuana in France will allow the authorities to better protect French citizens, saying that legalising would not require “minimising the health impacts of cannabis consumption” but rather would allow regulation similar to “public policies for tobacco, alcohol or gambling.”

For the group of 31 senators, the benefits of legalisation would involve a better control over the “health quality of products consumed,” “curbing trafficking in disadvantaged areas,” developing large-scale prevention plans,” and finally the taxation of cannabis products and redirection of law enforcement resources. Decriminalisation – in their opinion – would not be sufficient as this would simply “deprive authorities the ability to act,” in contrast to legalisation. 

READ MORE: Is France moving towards legalising cannabis for recreational purposes?

“In the long term, new tax revenues would be generated from the cannabis trade and from savings in the justice and police sectors”, which would make it possible to mobilize “significant resources for prevention as well as for rehabilitation and economic development,” wrote the senators.

In France, the conversation around cannabis has evolved in recent years – former Health Minister (and current government spokesman) Olivier Véran said to France Bleu in September 2021 that “countries that have gone towards legalisation have results better than those of France in the last ten years,” adding that he was interested in the potential therapeutic use of cannabis.

Currently, the drug is illegal in France. Previously, it fell under a 1970-law of illicit drug use, making it punishable with up to a year prison and an up to €3,750 fine.

However, in 2020, the government softened the penalties, making it possible for those caught consuming it to opt for an on-the-spot fine of €200.

There is also an ongoing trial involving 3,000 patients to test the impacts of medical marijuana usage, particularly with regard to pain relief. 

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