Controversial Return of a French Hostage: Sophie Petronin

The last French hostage worldwide, Sophie Pétronin, returned to France on October 9, 2020, a changed woman. Pétronin has now taken on a new name, Mariam and she wears a hijab, having converted to Islam.[1]

"For Mali, I will pray and beseech for Allah’s blessing because I am Muslim. You say Sophie, but you have Mariam in front of you."[2]

The 75-year-old Franco-Swiss humanitarian worker was kidnapped in Gao (North of Mali) by the so-called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) on December 26, 2016.[3] "The white woman"[4] was directing activity on the ground of "Association Aid" which helps orphans suffering from malnutrition.

Welcome but changed

During her time in confinement, Mariam turned hardship into a "spiritual retreat" a life experience she apparently does not regret – describing her place of captivity as "an atmosphere that was healthy and good."[5]

According to French media, Mariam appears to have been brainwashed.[6] She is characterised as an "Islamic Militant"[7] and nicknamed "Daesh Grandma."[8] According to her co-captive – the  Italian priest Antonio Porcellato – Pétronin's conversion to Islam was a "more a matter of expedience than conviction, in order to get better treatment."[9]

However, the defence of her abductors is met with skepticism: "they are not Jihadis," she says, because "jihad means war."[10]

The Atlantico newspaper[11] described the "awkward moment" Emmanuel Macron experienced when seeing Mariam Pétronin. Miriam's embrace of Islam in terrorist captivity sends the confusing signal that an official French enemy could be something misunderstood and more benign. It also raised many questions about the compromises the French President had to make to secure a citizen's release. All this amid the Covid crisis. Shortly after expressing his joy at her return, the President cut his speech short due to the delicate situation the Republic is in right now.[12]

Negotiating with terrorists?

Along with Mariam Pétronin, three other hostages have also been released. One of the hostages was Soumaîla Cissé, the prominent Malian politician in opposition to Ibrahim Boubacar Keîta, the former President of Mali.[13] The name Soumaîla Cissé is a synonym of hope among the Malian population but also for Malian politics.

The return of Mariam Pétronin has caused much controversy because the deal that secured her release entailed the liberation of 200 jihadists in the Sahel area. Among those released were 29 terrorists captured in operation Barkhane (launched on August 1 of 2014).[14] GSIM delivered a masterful sledgehammer blow to the French Army, achieving a strategic gain with a tactical move.

There are numerous versions of what really happened during the negotiation. According to General Lecointre (French Armed Forces Chief)[15] and Florence Parly (Ministry of the French Army),[16] France was not a party to the initial negotiation between the Malian government and the GSIM. Paris seems eager to avoid being seen to negotiate with terrorists. According to Jean-Bernard Veron on France Culture,[17] "France is not held to ransom," and "France does not pay to release hostages."[18]

Consequently, a non-state actor undermined the credibility of the nation-state (France, Mali and Italy). It is possible or even probable that Soumaila Cissé was used to claim back a French citizen, Mariam Petronin, an account confirmed both by two French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs researchers, namely Serge Michailof and Caroline Roussy.[19]

States are, in substance, negotiating with terrorists. Furthermore, there are reasons to believe actual cash was paid. Sources familiar with the context and the substance of the negotiation confirm that the price tag was in the region of €15 million,[20] a sum confirmed by both the journalist Seidik Abba (Sputnik Africa) and Emmanual Dupuy, of the Paris-based PISE think tank. That Mariam embraced the creed of her captors only added to the confusion, and was certainly no help to Macron's bid to project French power globally.


[1] Guy Konopnicki : « Libération de Sophie Pétronin, un scénario à la Homeland » 15/10/2020, Edito,

[2] TV5Monde : «Mali, déclaration de Sophie Pétronin, après sa libération » 9/10/2020. Https://

[3] A support group to islam and muslim (terrorist group) created in 2017.

[4] Guy Konopnicki : « Libération de Sophie Pétronin, un scénario à la Homeland » 15/10/2020, Edito,

[5] Interview de Serge Daniel avec Sophie Pétronin : « Sophie Petronin, j’étais dans l’acceptation de ce qui m’arrivait »,

[6] Guy Konopnicki : « Libération de Sophie Pétronin, un scénario à la Homeland » 15/10/2020, Edito,

[7] ibid.

[8] Benoît Rayski : « On croyait libérer une mère Teresa, on a libéré une mamie Daech »

[9] Camille Lecuit : « l’ex otage Sophie Pétronin s’est-elle convertie de force à l’islam ? » 14/10/2020,

[10] Interview de Serge Daniel avec Sophie Pétronin : « Sophie Petronin, j’étais dans l’acceptation de ce qui m’arrivait »,

[11] ibid.

[12] Yves Thréard : «Sophie Pétronin et le silence embarrassé d’Emmanuel Macron » 12/10/2020,

[13] David Pauget : « Mali, qui sont les autres otages libérés avec Sophie Pétronin ? » 9/10/2020,

[14] Pierre Julien: « Libération de Sophie Pétronin, un échange au goût amer pour l’armée française » 16/10/2020,

[15] Public Sénat : « Libération de Sophie Pétronin, la France n’a en rien été impliquée dans des négociations avec le groupe terroriste » 14/10/2020,

[16] Le Figaro : « La France pas impliquée dans les négociations pour libérer les otages au Mali » 13/10/2020,

[17] Former Editor-in-Chief for Contemporary Africa review and former Director of Crisis and Conflicts unit of the French Development Agency

[18] Guillaume Erner : « Sophie Petronin, comment se négocie la libération d’otages ? » 13/10/2020,

[19] Manon Aublanc : « Pourquoi l’otage française Sophie Pétronin est-elle libérée maintenant ? » 8/10/2020,


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