Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Thursday, 3 July 2008 18:54 UK

France's Betancourt infatuation

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

A poster of Ingrid Betancourt in Bordeaux, 03/07
Ms Betancourt's release has been widely celebrated in France

Ask any French person where Ingrid Betancourt is from and they will tell you that she is half-Colombian and half-French.

"Franco-Colombienne" is how she is invariably described in the media here.

Which is interesting, because she is not.

In fact the 46-year-old former presidential candidate is 100% Colombian, and has a French passport only by virtue of a now-dissolved marriage.

What has happened is that by a curious process of national osmosis over her six years of captivity, she has become French. Or rather the French have claimed her for their own.

There is a perfectly rational starting-point for this. Ingrid Betancourt spent much of her youth in Paris, where her father was Colombia's ambassador at Unesco.

Later she studied at the famous Sciences Po political science school where she befriended France's future Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

She also married her first husband - a diplomat - and had two children here, Melanie and Lorenzo.

President Nicolas Sarkozy with Ms Betancourt's children, 03/07
President Sarkozy made Ms Betancourt's release a policy priority

As she said when she first descended from the aeroplane at Bogota's military airport, her heart is "shared between Colombia and France".

But France's infatuation with Ingrid Betancourt has deeper psychological roots.

Over the period of her imprisonment she was transformed from an obscure if well-connected environmentalist from a far-off country into a paragon of modern-day heroism.

Support committees were set up across France, which staged a constant round of consciousness-raising events. At sporting matches, crowds were asked to applaud for five minutes in her honour.

There were midnight vigils; she became an honorary citizen of Paris; and a vast photograph of her was draped over the front of the Hotel de Ville.

Urge for an icon

President Sarkozy caught the mood and made securing her liberation a foreign policy priority.

He lobbied hard on her behalf in international forums and, though he can claim no direct hand in her release, will certainly draw some political credit.

It was as if Ingrid Betancourt answered some urge in the French people for an icon to bear the values they think of as their own: a social conscience, activism, courage, independence.

It did not do any harm either that this is a woman who clearly loves France and believes its message to the world still counts.

Speaking in French at Bogota airport, Ms Betancourt said she could not wait to rediscover what she called "ma douce France" - my gentle France.

It is an old-fashioned expression that conjures up all kinds of good feelings.

She could have uttered no greater compliment to the country that has made her its own.

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