Arnaud Beltrame undertook one of the ultimate acts of bravery when he offered up his own life to save a hostage in a supermarket terror attack in southwest France on Friday, the policeman dying as he had lived, serving his country.
Beltrame was shot after he volunteered to swap places with a woman held hostage during a four-hour supermarket siege in Trèbes in southwestern France on Friday. His death was announced early Saturday morning by the Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, who posted on Twitter: “Dead for his country. France will never forget his heroism, bravery and sacrifice.”
The 44-year-old was the first policeman to arrive at the supermarket where a gunman, Radouane Lakdim, had shot two civilians at the store and taken others hostage. Lakdim had earlier shot and wounded a police officer out jogging in Carcassonne, 15 minutes away from Trèbes.
When Beltrame entered the supermarket he left his mobile phone on to allow police who had surrounded the building to listen in.
On hearing gunshots, the police special forces then stormed inside, killing the gunman and recovering Beltrame.
The policeman’s death takes the total number killed to four; a further 15 were seriously injured. During the hostage-taking Lakdim had proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State group.
On Saturday, tributes for the fallen policeman soon poured in from around the world. Many twitter users paying tribute to Beltrame were resolutely deliberate in calling him a ‘true’ hero, keen to distinguish him from cases where the term ‘hero’ is so often cavalierly used.
— Denzil Meyrick (@Lochlomonden) March 24, 2018
The term “hero” was “perfectly appropriate”, said Cédric Beltrame, Arnaud’s brother, speaking to French broadcaster RTL.
“He began as a hero and that’s the reality today. What he did goes beyond the commitment of his profession.”
Cédric said that he believed his brother “would have certainly known that he had practically no chance” after he decided to take the place of the hostage.
“He was very aware of what he was doing,” he said. “He did not hesitate a second.”
— Dr. Carmine Branco#FBPE (@BrancoCarmine) March 24, 2018
A life of service
Beltrame, 44, originated from Morbihan, Brittany in western France and had earned numerous military honours and commendations throughout his career. He gained entry into one of the country’s top military academies, Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan, near Paris in 1999. His colleagues and superiors at the school described him as “energetic”, and “devoted to the service”.
After graduating, he joined the gendarmerie in 2003 — a police force which is part of the French military — where he trained for the elite intervention unit, the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (GIGN), tasked with counter-terrorism operations. He was also a qualified parachutist. In 2005, he spent two years in Iraq, earning the military cross in 2007. He afterwards returned to France where he worked as part of the elite Republican Guard protecting the Elysée Palace and the president’s residence.
Beltrame was made head of a branch of the gendarmerie in Avranches in Normandy in August 2010 where for four years he led a company of 144 soldiers. He described his time there “as my best command in 18 years of my career”.
For much of his career Beltrame had demonstrated his expertise on the ground, but in 2014 he accepted a post with the French ministry of the environment in Paris. His work involved coordinating activities between the ministerial cabinet and the gendarmerie.
He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 2016.
In a strangely prescient event, Beltrame had in December 2017 organized a training session simulating a real-life attack in a supermarket in the Aude region, where Friday’s attack took place. He had armed his soldiers with paintball guns, according to local newspaper Dépêche du Midi.
“We want to be as close to real conditions as possible,” he told the paper then.
Beltrame had only just married his wife in a civil ceremony and had planned a church wedding for June. He had no children.
Beltrame’s death follows a number of incidents in which policemen in France have been killed or injured in recent years while protecting civilians and patrolling sensitive areas such as airports and train stations.
One such attack occurred when a policeman was killed and two others injured in a shooting on the Champs Élysées in April 2017.
In acknowledging Beltrame’s “service to the nation”, President Emmanuel Macron echoed the sentiments of many, saying in a statement: “In giving his life to end the deadly plan of a jihadi terrorist, he fell as a hero.”
The president’s office announced that France would organise a national tribute in Beltrame’s honour.