The far right leader Marine Le Pen has provoked widespread indignation yesterday by implying that four French hostages released in the Sahara might have been converted to radical Islam during their three years in captivity.
Ms Le Pen told a radio interviewer that she was “uneasy” about the “astonishing” beards and “strange” clothes worn by three of the men when they arrived back in Paris on Wednesday. She also complained that the hostages had been oddly silent since their release.
The president of the National Front, who has tried to launder her party’s xenophobic image, was accused by mainstream politicians of “coming out in her true colours” and making “indecent” and “unpatriotic” remarks. One senior Socialist politician suggested in a tweet that Ms Le Pen was “writing the script for Homeland 4” – the American TV drama series about a captured US marine sergeant brainwashed by Islamist militants.
Ms Le Pen is soaring in the opinion polls after walking a tight-rope between populism and Islam-baiting since she replaced her father as the NF leader in January 2011. She seemed to be aware yesterday that she had committed a potentially serious blunder.
In a second statement, she said that she had expressed herself “clumsily”. She tried to steer the debate back towards reports that the French government had paid around €25m to ransom the four men – breaking a solemn pledge by President François Hollande.
Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol and Marc Féret were kidnapped by Islamist rebels from uranium mining camp in Niger in September 2010. When they arrived back in France on Wednesday, three of them wore the kind of beards sometimes worn by Islamic militants and typically Saharan cloaks or “cheches”.
In a radio interview, Ms Le Pen said; “They were very uncommunicative to say the least. Two of them were wearing quite astonishing beards. Their clothing was strange…They owe us an explanation.”
Asked to state clearly whether she was alleging that the quartet had been “Islamised”, Ms Le Pen said. “I am not a psychiatrist. I’m not going to theorise. That’s not my role,” she said.
The spokesman for the ruling Socialist Party, Eduardo Rihan Cypel, said: “It seems that Ms Le Pen is so blinded by her hatred of Muslims that she cannot share in the whole nation’s joy at the release of our hostages.”
Pascale Robert, the mother of one of the released men, Pierre Legrand, said she hoped that Ms Le Pen would never have to “live through” what she had endured in the last three years. Wearing beards and Saharan clothes was “a form of solidarity with the remaining hostages out there,” she said. “It’s their decision and we find it very touching.”
French diplomats said that, judging by initial debriefing of the quartet, there could be no question of them having been “turned” or brainwashed.