Analysis: France

Nobody's happy - Hollande fails to defuse Roma schoolgirl deportation row

If French President François Hollande hoped his proposal that Roma schoolgirl Leonarda Dibrani could return to France without her family would be hailed as a judgement of Solomon, he must have been disillusioned within minutes of making it. Like so many of his government's actions, it has infuriated both his supporters and his opponents.

President Francois Hollande makes his statement on the Dibrani case on television on Saturday
President Francois Hollande makes his statement on the Dibrani case on television on Saturday Reuters/TF1/Handout via Reuters

Almost as soon as had Hollande declared that, although her deporation was lawful, the 15-year-old could return to France as long as she left her family behind in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica, she rejected the offer.

"I want to be with my family," she told reporters. "That’s it. It’s thanks to them that I grew up well and that I’m healthy. The president did not understand my situation at all. Not at all."

Left-wingers and Roma representatives in France also slammed the suggestion, presented as firm but humane by the president but dubbed an "unbearable choice" by Communist Party spokesperson Olivier Dartigolles.

"It brings shame on the republic when the head of state invites a young girl of 15 to leave her parents, leave her family so as to be able to live in France," said Saïmer Milé ofthe Voix des Roms organisation.

Even the first secretary of Hollande's Socialist Party, Harlem Désir, hoped that "all the children of Leonarda's family could finish their studies in France, accompanied by theirmother".

Right-wingers were predictably acerbic.

Former agriculture minister Bruno Le Maire accused Hollande of "putting minority demands before the interests of the majority of French people", while Front National vice-president Florent Philippot wanted to kow why he had made a public statement on the Dibrani case "while the French people have other concerns, in which he shows no interest".

Hollande never believed that Dibrani would accept his proposal, says François Jost, a media professor at Paris's Sorbonne University.

"He knew it was impossible to satisfy the left and the right," he told RFI. "His concern was essentially to answer to the protests of students demanding Leonarda's return to France. He knows that two out of three people in France are against the return of Leonarda and I think he wanted Léonarda to refuse his proposition."

School students' protests in Paris and elsewhere in France rattled Hollande, Jost thinks.

"It will be more difficult for the young people to say that Leonarda has to return to France, because she doesn't want to. So, one of the main arguments is not available."

Students' protests in France often start small and then become a major headache for whatever government is in power, after all nobody has forgotten May 68.

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"When the young people begin to protest, you know when it begins, but you don't know when it stops," comments Jost. "This protest is only a symptom of a malaise that the young people have, and I think Leonarda is just one little point, but it could to spread to other subjects."

And the students are not the only factor to consider.

Their teachers are a traditional source of support for the left, and it was Leonarda Dibrani's teachers who tipped off the media that she had been taken off a school trip in order to be kicked out of the country.

With his personal popularity at an all-time low of 23 per cent and local council elections coming up in five months, Hollande would rather not upset his core vote, already quite likely to stay at home due to disappointment with the government's record.

But he also wants to stop the flight of votes to the far-right Front National, which scored a surprise victory in a recent local election and came out top of voting intentions for European elections for the first time ever in a recent opinion poll.

As he demonstrated this weekend, Hollande has yet to find a way of squaring that particular circle and he must be casting envious glances at his interior minister, Manuel Valls, who is flying high in opinion polls.

Valls has cultivated a tough-guy image on immigration, crime and the Roma, while from time to time insisting that he really is a "man of the left".

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Indeed, a cynic might conclude that some of his Socialist comrades' interest in the Leonarda case may be motivated more by political rivalry than by a sudden access of idealism.

A further twist to the plot was added by the report into the Dibrani deportation commissioned by Valls.

While judging its execution clumsy, it declared that the deportation had been lawful.

And it went on to paint a profoundly unflattering portrait of the Dibrani family and especially of Leonarda's father, Resat, which has been seized on by the right-wing press.

He had already admitted lying to immigration authorities about where his wife and children were born.

The report portrays him as a petty criminal who has dodged offers of work and declared his intention of claiming social security for his large family.

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His older daughters were at one point taken into care after accusing him of beating them, the report says, although they later retracted and went back to the family.

While conceding that one of Leonarda's teachers praised her efforts to integrate and her progress at school, it goes on to claim that she and some of her siblings were frequently absent from their classes.

But, details aside, Leonarda's case has brought out a conflict.

On one hand, the compassion championed by those demonstrating school students and usually associated with the left.

On the other, the insecurity felt by growing sections of the population of a Europe in economic and social crisis, an insecurity increasingly finding its expression on the right, even the far right.

So far Hollande has failed to find the way to square that particular circle.

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