Expulsion of Roma schoolgirl reignites French migration row

Pupils clash with police in Paris to support 15-year-old taken off school bus and deported to Kosovo

High school students in Paris on Thursday protesting the deportation of foreign pupils following the high-profile eviction of a 15-year-old Roma girl.
Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

A 15-year-old Roma girl allegedly taken off a school bus and deported to Kosovo by French authorities has become the latest focus of France's agonized debate over immigration, placing Interior Minister Manuel Valls under fire from his own Socialist colleagues.

Pupils blockaded several high schools in the Paris region on Thursday, protesting the explulsion of Leonarda Dibrani. Clashes erupted with riot police as tensions over Dibrani's treatment increased, Al Jazeera's Tim Friend reported from Paris.

The deportation incident occurred in the eastern town of Levier on Oct. 9 but came to light only this week after being highlighted by an nongovernmental organization that campaigns against the expulsion of school-age children.

Some Socialist lawmakers accused Valls, the most popular minister in President Francois Hollande's government, of betraying the left's values with tough immigration policies that led to the girl's arrest during a class outing. Some demanded the resignation of the interior minister from within his own party.

"Here in parliament the pressure is growing on the interior minister," Friend reported. "He's caught between popular demands to curb immigration and those who are outraged by the treatment of Roma people in France." 

Valls has stepped up rhetoric against Roma migrants living in illegal camps in French cities as support for the far-right, anti-immigration National Front has surged in opinion polls ahead of municipal and European elections next year. The party got 40.4 percent of the votes in the first round of a local by-election in Brignoles, a village in southern France.

The Dibrani row follows an outcry last month over remarks by Valls in which he said most of the 20,000 Roma in France had no intention of integrating and should be sent back to their countries of origin. Polls have suggested as many as three in four French voters support that stance.

Meanwhile, the government sought to deflect blame from Valls, promising to review the treatment of Dibrani, whose family entered France illegally in 2009 and had exhausted legal appeals against expulsion.

Dibrani's father, Reshat, who was deported a day before the rest of the family, said they had been victimized because of their ethnicity.

"There are bad refugees in France who get papers easily — we didn't do anything bad," he said. "They did it to us because we are Roma. We would be treated differently if our skin was a different color."

Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem defended Valls and rebuffed calls for his resignation, urging patience while the incident is investigated.

"If a school bus was indeed stopped and a child extracted in full view of her classmates, then that is indeed shocking," she told RTL radio. "But today, it's not clear things happened that way."

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault told parliament that Dibrani, now back in Kosovo with her family, would be readmitted to France if the probe found that police had broken rules by arresting her on school property. Valls ordered officials to review the case.

"If there is a God, we will be aboard the first plane back to France," the girl told AFP in an interview in the Kosovar town of Mitrovica, where the family has been given temporary housing by the local authorities.

"I'm frightened, I don't speak Albanian. My life is in France. I don't want to go to school here, because I don't speak any of the local languages. I had freedom there. I do not want to stay here."

French immigrant issues have been at the center of political debate in recent weeks. On Oct. 4, 65 Syrian migrants blocked a gateway to a ferry terminal to Britain in the northern city of Calais, asking for asylum in Britain after what they called a deplorable reception in France.

Sterile polemics

The uproar show no signs of abating, with hundreds of high school students demonstrating outside some 20 schools over the expulsion of Dibrani and another student, of Armenian descent, in a separate case.

The Socialist speaker of the lower house of parliament, Claude Bartolone, said the left risked "losing its soul," and Frederic Hocquard, a senior party member, asked in a tweet: "When do we take action to distance Valls from the government?"

After initially dismissing the criticism as "sterile polemics," Valls, on a trip to the French Caribbean island of Martinique, was forced to fend off charges of betraying the left.

"I am of the left because I believe we need policies that uphold the rule of law, human rights and humanity, but also a strong and clear policy to regulate migratory flows," he said.

School property should be off limits to police intervention, he added.

The police have said they were carrying out orders after the family's application for political asylum was turned down on grounds of "insufficient prospect of social and economic integration" in France.

Dibrani told French media this week that she felt ashamed at being detained in front of her schoolmates.

A teacher, who gave her account via the Network for Education Without Borders, said the girl's classmates were fully aware of what was happening and were deeply distressed by the incident, but said Dibrani's arrest did not take place in view of other pupils.

Dibrani herself said: "All my friends and my teacher were crying. Some of them asked me if I had killed someone or stolen something, as the police were looking for me. When the police reached the bus, they told me to get out and that I had to go back to Kosovo."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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