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Will French hostages’ freedom boost unpopular Hollande?

The French president is seeing record-low popularity, but may get a respite with today’s release of four hostages kidnapped by an Al Qaeda-linked group in Niger three years ago.

After more than 1,000 days spent as hostages in the African Sahel, four Frenchmen arrived in Paris to cries of joy Wednesday, having been freed from the Al Qaeda-linked gunmen who snatched them three years ago.

The men, who had been working in Niger at the time of their kidnapping in 2010, stepped out of a French government plane dispatched to bring them home, and into the arms of weeping family members.

But they were not the only ones celebrating. By their side was also France‘s President François Hollande, who two days earlier faced polling data that declared him France’s most unpopular president in history.

Even as the government faced questions by journalists and analysts over whether a ransom was paid for the men’s release, the successful end of their ordeal gives Mr. Holland a badly needed political respite.

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The men were taken three years ago while working at Areva, a French nuclear company that operates a uranium mine in northern Niger. “I am very happy. It was difficult, the ordeal of a lifetime,” said Thierry Dol, one of the freed men. The other ex-hostages are Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, and Marc Feret.

As the president stood flanked by the four, it was a reminder of some of the successes Hollande has had in his year and a half as president. Most of his presidency has been overshadowed by a stalled economy, stubborn unemployment, and gaffes over immigration and corruption.

This week, a BVA poll showed that only 26 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of their president, the lowest rating since polling was started 32 years ago.

President Hollande is in a very bad political situation,” says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a foreign affairs expert at the French Institute of International Relations. “[The release] is good news for him.”

Hollande received his first major bump in popularity – up to 44 percent, according to BVA – after France intervened in Mali earlier this year to prevent insurgents from extending their power in the country. That intervention was widely popular, even though some warned that it could create a threat to French citizens as insurgents promised to retaliate against French interests. The fate of these specific hostages was a worry as France sent in troops.

It appears that this case might be an example of the successes of that operation.

Although details of the men’s release is unknown, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said they had been retrieved from northern Mali, where French intervention has weakened the grip of Islamic militants.

Their Tuesday release has been accompanied by rumors over ransom in local media. The government has denied the claims, instead focusing on this specific case and reminding the nation that other French are still held hostage – with seven known cases still unresolved.

“Today it’s joy for the four families, for our four ex-hostages, but it is still an unbearable wait for other families and for other hostages,” Hollande said.