PARIS — Premier Jacques Chirac, welcoming two former hostages home to France from Lebanon, acknowledged Saturday that their release represents an improvement in France's relations with Iran but denied as "a pack of lies" a report that ransom had been paid.
The report had appeared only hours earlier in the influential and usually authoritative newspaper, Le Monde. In a front-page story, Le Monde said, "The payment of a ransom contributed to the liberation of the hostages."
But Chirac used strong language in denying the report at a news conference at Paris' Orly Airport.
"I deny as emphatically as I can the pack of lies that claims France paid a ransom," Chirac said.
The controversy over how France gained their release did not dampen the emotional welcome at the airport for Jean-Louis Normandin, 36, a television lighting technician, and Roger Auque, 31, a free-lance photographer. The two were freed Friday in Beirut after their extremist Muslim kidnapers said they had received assurances of a change in French policies toward the Middle East.
Normandin, who was held for 20 months, hugged his 8-year-old son, Antoine, and lifted him in his arms. Normandin's 61-year-old father told reporters he had come with "a little gift of chocolate" for his son. Auque's mother was there to hug her son. Both former hostages were greeted warmly by Chirac.
Because it is widely assumed in France that the kidnapers in Beirut are heavily influenced by Iran, the suspicion about payment of either ransom or a grant of some special favor or concession to Iran was a natural reaction to the release of Normandin and Auque. Relations between France and Iran had seemed to be in a poor state at the time of the release.
France broke diplomatic relations with Iran last July after an Iranian official in Paris took refuge in the Iranian Embassy rather than submit to questioning by a judge about terrorist bombings in the capital.
Without going into detail, Chirac said that with the release of the hostages, "We have made progress on the easing of the contention between our countries (France and Iran) and progress on the road to normalization of our relations, a normalization that we desire."
Normandin and Auque returned from Beirut by helicopter as far as Cyprus, then by a civilian jetliner that refueled at Corfu, Greece, and flew on to Corsica, where the two men were greeted by French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, who reportedly was in charge of the operation that led to their release. From Corsica, the two former hostages and Pasqua were flown on to Paris in a government plane.
A mysterious figure, Alexandre Stephani, acted as the French negotiator for the release. He has been identified variously in the French press as a former French secret service agent, a Ministry of Defense official, and as a Corsican businessman friend of Pasqua.
A group calling itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization announced that it had released Normandin and Auque but said that it held no other Frenchmen.
Islamic Jihad (Holy War) has claimed responsibility for the capture of the four other French hostages still missing in Lebanon. The group has also announced the execution of one of them. Islamic Jihad also claims that it holds American journalist Terry Anderson, the longest-held foreign hostage in Lebanon. He was kidnaped in March, 1985.
In all, more than 20 foreign hostages are still in Lebanon, including eight Americans and Terry Waite, the Anglican Church official who went from England to try to negotiate their release.