PARIS – Ingrid Betancourt, freed from captivity and humiliation in the jungles of Colombia, returns home to a hero's welcome Friday in the gilded halls of France's presidential palace.
President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to personally greet Betancourt at the air base in Villacoublay, outside Paris. Then Betancourt, her family and supporters who lobbied for her release will head together to the Elysee palace, Sarkozy's office said.
Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, was freed Wednesday in a daring Colombian operation involving military spies who tricked FARC rebels into handing over Betancourt and 14 other hostages without firing a shot.
Betancourt was campaigning for Colombia's presidency when she was captured in 2002. She became a cause celebre in France during her six years as a hostage, with her portrait hung on town halls and constant street rallies by supporters.
Betancourt spent much of her childhood here and attended university at Paris' Institut d'Etudes Politiques. Her own children — Melanie, 22, and Lorenzo, 19 — have grown up in Paris during her captivity.
Betancourt was reunited with her children in Colombia on Thursday. Interviewed by Europe-1 radio before her arrival in France, said she was proud of how her children had forged "extraordinary characters" in her absence.
She recalled humiliating treatment by the FARC, saying she had to wear chains 24 hours a day for three years.
"When you have a chain around your neck, you have to keep your head down and try to accept your fate without succumbing entirely to humiliation, without forgetting who you are," she said.
"I reached a moment where I understood that death was a possibility," she said in another interview with France-2 television. "I had seen my companions die, I knew that death arrives very, very quickly in the jungle."
Betancourt described her illnesses as "a series of problems that piled on top of each other, I couldn't nourish myself, I visibly lost weight, I lost the capacity to move, I was prostrated in my hammock, I had trouble drinking."
She said she reached "a truly critical situation" but was helped by a male nurse who helped get her medicine.
Sarkozy made freeing Betancourt a priority the night he was elected France's president in May 2007. The previous government of Jacques Chirac also worked for her release, and then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is a longtime friend of Betancourt's.
Betancourt's release was a big image boost for Sarkozy, with even his rivals acknowledging that his diplomatic efforts kept up the pressure on Colombia to find ways to get her released.
But Sarkozy had been pushing for negotiations with the FARC, not a military operation. Once it emerged that France had no role in the operation to free her, one of Sarkozy's main political rivals — former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal — expressed impatience with his tactics.
"Everyone knows it, it's a Colombian operation that was well-executed, that worked well, that proves that the negotiations with the FARC were useless," she told LCI television. "Nicolas Sarkozy had absolutely nothing to do with this liberation."
Royal lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 election.
Sarkozy's closest aide, Elysee chief of staff Claude Gueant, admitted Thursday that France learned of Betancourt's release just 15 minutes before Colombian media broke the news.