Paris has been accused of paying around €25m (£21.4m) for four hostages released by Islamist rebels in northern Mali, despite a personal pledge by President François Hollande to refuse all ransom deals.
After more than three years in captivity in remote mountains on the Mali-Algerian frontier, the four French mining engineers returned to Paris to an emotional greeting from their families and President Hollande.
The men, who appeared strained but well, refused to speak to the waiting press.
The French government spokesman and the foreign and defence ministers denied that any ransom had been paid, despite detailed reports by the newspaper, Le Monde, and the news agency, Agence France-Press, both quoting sources in the French intelligence services and the Niger government.
Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol and Marc Féret were seized with three other French citizens from a uranium mining camp in Niger in September 2010.
According to the official version of events, they were freed on Tuesday following negotiations involving the president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou.
France has often been reported to have paid ransoms in the past, including a reported €13m which was handed over by former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government for the three other hostages seized in Niger in 2010, including Mr Larribe’s wife, Françoise.
Earlier this year, during France’s successful military campaign against extremist Islamist groups in Mali, President Hollande pledged that his government would refuse all payments which helped to sustain such rebellions.
The government’s official spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud- Belkacem, insisted that this policy remained unchanged.
“Our attitude is steadfast on this subject,” she said.
Earlier, the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said: “All I can tell you is that France does not pay ransoms. That is clear and open.”
Le Monde’s website carried a very different account, based on sources within the French external intelligence service, the DGSE.
It described months of negotiations involving the French and Niger governments, culminating in an eight-day trek by 18 French agents and Tuareg helpers into the remote mountains of northern Mali at the end of last week.
Le Monde said that €20m-€25m had been handed to this “convoy” from the secret funds of the DGSE.
It had been arranged, through a senior Niger official, that the four hostages would be brought together from their separate places of captivity and left alone with food and water in the desert.
Once the money had been handed to an intermediary, the rebels provided the French agents with a GPS address for the place where the hostages were waiting.
A similar account was given by Agence France Presse. Sources within the Niger government told the news agency that up to €25m had been paid for the four men.
The release of the hostages is a welcome piece of positive news for President Hollande following weeks of crises, gaffes, disappointing economic results and a succession of disastrous opinion polls.
It remains to be seen whether his “success” will be tarnished by the ransom accusations.
The main centre-right opposition – perhaps mindful of ransoms allegedly paid by Presidents Sarkozy and Chirac in the past – appeared ready to accept the government’s word.
Françoise Larribe, freed in 2011, spoke yesterday of a “tsunami of joy” at being reunited with her husband.
“It as if we had resumed a conversation that we broke off a few days ago,” she said.