A few weeks ago, a story made the headlines of French newspapers and television: after seven years of imprisonment, Florence Cassez was finally free. Cries of triumph erupted everywhere: ‘Flo-Flo’, as she is known in France, was coming home.
Condemned in 2005 as an accomplice to kidnappings in which her companion took part, the Mexican Supreme Court sentenced her to 96 years of prison, reduced to 60 years on appeal. Since then, French citizen Cassez, 38, had become in her home country a symbol of the unfairness of the Mexican government and its justice system, widely regarded as dangerous, incompetent, and corrupt. But in a three to two decision, the Supreme Court agreed, three weeks ago, to her immediate release.
Her liberation is the result of a multiplicity of factors. First, the recent election of new presidents in both France and Mexico led to a desire for change and a willingness to move away from the upheavals of the past few of years. Second, irregularities arose in the charges against her, including the acknowledgment that the police raid during which she was arrested had been staged and the recognition that two of the testimonies used against her were forged. Last but not least, the election of a new judge in the Supreme Court allowed for a shift in the balance of power, ultimately favouring her liberation.
What had happened? The condemnation of Florence Cassez occurred in a climate of insecurity in Mexico, and her actual involvement in the kidnappings for which her companion was condemned remains unclear to date. Yet she undeniably suffered from former Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s strict national security policies. She became a scapegoat, and her incarceration was used to epitomise Calderon’s efficiency in dealing with the worryingly and increasingly high number of kidnappings in Mexico; an efficiency that has recurrently been questioned, first and foremost by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Following her imprisonment, Franco-Mexican relations became incredibly strained, so much in fact that the 2011 Franco-Mexican year resulted in an immense fiasco. French supporters boycotted tourism in Mexico while Felipe Calderon publicly denounced French interference in Mexican domestics affairs, rightly arguing that while Mexico still remained a developing country, it was independent and had no lessons to receive from France. A blow in the face for Nicolas Sarkozy, but a lesson for the many Western countries – being a developed nation does not give you the right to interfere in one’s domestic affairs. What was indubitable in 2011 remains undeniable in 2013: the French government needs to lose some of its geo-political arrogance and stop acting like the great power it no longer is.
Yet, freeing Florence Cassez revolutionised Franco-Mexican relations, which could currently not be any better. Politically and economically the two countries have returned to their position in 2005. This is a positive step forward, not only because both nations are members of the G20 but also because Mexico is an emerging power and France needs to acknowledge the country’s increasing role in the international affairs.
So what next? Three weeks after the release of Florence Cassez some critical questions remain.
For a start, she was freed but her innocence remains challenged. In the eyes of many Mexicans she could not have been unaware of her companion’s behaviour and some victims have identified her as one of the kidnappers. Therefore, has justice really been served? Mexicans are in fact not only enquiring about the ruling but also voicing their disbelief, discontent, and often outrage regarding her liberation. For many in the country, her release is perceived as a dearth of accountability, opening the doors to impunity and foreign intervention in Mexican national politics.
As a matter of fact, the magistrates solely freed her on the basis that her rights had been violated. Though it was argued that some evidence against Cassez was forged, none of the magistrates actually decided on her innocence or guilt. Following the decision Mexico’s justice system, while glorified in France, is now highly condemned nationally. Releasing Florence Cassez on the basis of irregularities in the charges against her is one thing. Clearing her name is another. Although in crucial need for structural reforms, mystery remains as to whether the Supreme Court had, indeed, made a mistake.
Furthermore, the media frenzy around Florence Cassez requires perspective. According to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2,216 French citizens are currently imprisoned worldwide, under various accusations. Neither the French government nor the media has spoken about the majority of them, while others have only been briefly acknowledged. More worryingly, why are French hostages, and especially those detained in Mali, almost never mentioned, while Florence Cassez made the headlines, even while she was imprisoned?
Finally, Florence Cassez has, like Ingrid Betancourt before her, become a symbol of democracy, a woman martyr of some patriarchal, violent, and oppressive states in the developing world. In both cases, the media attention surrounding their imprisonment and their release has been magnified to the point that it becomes caricature. Why Florence Cassez’ story ended up turning into an international soap opera remains unclear. What is certain is that, between the unfolding of the red carpet for ‘Flo-Flo’s’ return and the current scandal regarding the potential payment of $17 million to AQMI, the African branch of Al-Qaeda, by the Sarkozy government to free hostages seized in Niger in 2010, it is no understatement to say that France lacks political logic and diplomatic skills in its attempt to free its captives. What next?