Fortunately for the men, Mourad Benchellali, Brahim Yadel, Nizar Sassi and Imad Kanouni, they have received some genuinely balanced coverage. However, one should not discount the significant influence of anti-American sentiments currently prevalent in France.

The main newspapers, Le Figaro, Le Monde and Liberation, span the French mainstream political debate from right to left. Yet despite their day-to-day differences, all three were basically in agreement. As Liberation put it, this agreement was centred on the idea that the four men had been "returned to the rule of law".

"What is needed is a systematic judicial process, where evidence is properly considered," said Le Figaro. "It does not matter if it takes a long time to ascertain the truth if it helps to serve French justice."

The notion that the French legal system was preferential to the detention without trial in Guantanamo was often repeated. Not only that the French legal system is a better one than the detainees faced at Guantanamo, according to the media, but also that in France justice should be seen to be done.

"French legality must now show itself to be a counter to that of the Americans," said Liberation. "Under the name of 'anti-terrorism' President Bush has rolled back the notion of civil liberties, France must not do the same. Even if the four detainees were to hold views that would also strangle human rights we must not fall into line with either of them."

Serious blow

Le Monde agreed. "The four detainees are now in a judicial system that bases its findings on hard facts, evidence and the basic ideas of the rule of law. In contrast President Bush has only displayed contempt for the rule of law, both national and international, and also for common-sense morality. If the detainees are found to be innocent it will be a major blow to his 'war on terror'."

Detainees are observed by
guards at Guantanamo Bay

All the newspapers condemned the secrecy and the lack of appointed lawyers at the US-run base.

"Despite secret interrogations, reminiscent of the Inquisition, the Americans released the four men. So what do the French authorities hope to find that the Americans could not," asked Liberation.

The main nightly TV news from TF1 also repeated the claims made by Jacques Debray, lawyer for Benchellali and Sassi, that "my clients have been subjected to repeated harsh treatment at Guantanamo Bay. This includes interrogation techniques very similar to those we have seen at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, such as being placed in narrow cages and also beatings. Remember this is without knowing any details of the Iraqi war."

Hellish imprisonment

Le Figaro also went on to report the claim that the four men were "subjected to psychological and physical torture".

Liberation added a litany of accusations against the American guards. These included that the four men were "threatened with dogs and forcibly given unnamed medications against their will. These had serious side effects such as the inability to sleep and blistered skin.

The men's treatment has fuelled
anti-US feeling in France

"They were also urinated on by the guards. These practices, if they are confirmed, are absolutely illegal.

"Benchellali and Sassi have also said that they spent three weeks in jail in Kandahar in Afghanistan, where they received multiple attacks and beatings. They described Kandahar jail as 'hell on Earth', even compared to Guantanamo Bay."

This is not to say that the four men are being treated with kid gloves by either the French authorities, (who are currently detaining the four pending investigations) or the media.

It has been disclosed that the men spent between six and 18 months in Afghanistan and TF1 claimed that "one of the men, Brahim Yadel, was already known to the French authorities".

Legal high ground

Le Monde reported the routes, both physical and ideological, which they claimed ended up with the four being present in Afghanistan.
 
"Both Benchellali and Sassi, originally from the suburbs of Lyon, attended the notorious Finsbury Park mosque in London. Yadel, from Paris, had also but he was already known to the French police over an alleged plan to disrupt the 1998 World Cup in France. Imad Kanouni, also Parisian, had studied in Frankfurt, then at a mosque in Bangladesh before going to join a group of Algerian men in Afghanistan."

But rather than spend a lot of effort pre-judging the individual cases, their repatriation to France has allowed the French media to beat a unified and undoubtedly nationalistic note.

As anti-American sentiment rides high in France, the return of the four has allowed France to show that it will provide, as Le Figaro put it, an "upstanding legal process". The obvious point being that the "scrupulous French legal system" (Liberation) is in stark contrast to the dubious American legality of Guantanamo Bay.