Le Pen comments hint at 'Homeland' turn for French hostages
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen sparked a furore Thursday by questioning why four Frenchmen held captive by an Al-Qaeda offshoot for three years sported beards and wore "strange clothing" after they were freed.
The remarks by the head of the anti-immigration National Front party drew immediate condemnation on social media networks and from politicians, leading Le Pen to backtrack.
Le Pen appeared to hint that the four men -- who were freed on Tuesday in west Africa and arrived home a day later -- may have been radicalised during their captivity.
They were kidnapped in Niger in 2010.
Le Pen said the men’s manner and appearance -- including their clothing and facial hair -- had left her "sceptical".
"I felt uncomfortable and I think I wasn’t the only one. That is what many French people felt," she said on Europe 1.
The hostages looked gaunt in television images. Three of them sported beards and one had a scarf covering his face.
"One had a feeling of seeing men who were very reserved, that's the least that one can say. The two men had trimmed beards in a strange manner and their clothing was strange," Le Pen said.
When pressed by an interviewer whether she thought they had become radicalised -- in a plot reminiscent of the US television series "Homeland" -- Le Pen said it was "not her role" to comment.
But she added: "This hostage with a scarf covering the face... all this merits some explanations on the hostages' part."
French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem slammed the comments as "incredibly indecent".
"One has the impression that Madame Le Pen is so blinded by her hate of Muslims that she cannot share the nation's joy," said Eduardo Rihan-Cypel, spokesman for the ruling Socialist party.
The mother of the youngest hostage Pierre Legrand, 28, said the hostages sported beards and scarves to express their solidarity with other hostages still in captivity.
There are seven French nationals held across the world, including three in Africa.
"They told us clearly that by retaining beards and scarves they were showing solidarity with the other hostages who remain there," Pascale Robert told i-Tele.
Following the widespread condemnation, Le Pen backtracked from her comments, saying they were "clumsy" and in no way reflective of "the least criticism towards the hostages".
She accused the government of gaining political mileage from their liberation and said it was not a television reality show.
"It would be good if our leaders remember this," she added.