Thousands of French students took part in widening protests Friday against the deportation of a 15-year-old Roma girl, Leonarda Dibrani, who was allegedly taken off a school bus last week and forced to return to Kosovo. The incident, along with an ongoing protest by Syrian refugees in Calais, has put fresh focus on the country's immigration policies.
The students blockaded some 50 schools in Paris and other major French cities — including Marseille, Angers and Grenoble — demanding she be allowed to return to France, according to French newspaper Le Monde.
They carried signs reading "We want papers for all" and "Freedom for Khatchik and Leonarda." Khatchik Kachatryan, a 19-year-old Armenian student, was deported Saturday, three days after Dibrani.
Minor clashes with riot police erupted over the course of Friday's main demonstration, which departed from the Place de la Bastille in Paris on Friday morning, but no major incidents have been reported.
Local police estimated that about 3,000 students participated, but advocacy organizations said as many as 12,000 people had come out in support of their cause.
In a televised interview with Agence France-Presse Friday morning, French Education Minister Vincent Peillon urged the students to return to school. He said school life is a "sanctuary" and should not be upset by a deportation such as Dibrani's but demanded the blockades be lifted.
"Since they want the right to education, they shouldn't block those who wish to enter their school," he said.
But it is unclear whether French high school students will heed his demand. Fears over the growing popularity of the far-right National Front and its anti-immigrant positions are increasing before next year's elections.
"Leonarda and Khatchik don't go to class, we don’t either," one student's sign read.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls weathered a storm of criticism last month after he said Roma immigrants should be sent back to their countries of origin because they had no intention of integrating. The incident drew objections from his socialist colleagues in President Francois Hollande's government.
"These people have an enormously different lifestyle (from the French)," he told radio station France Inter, saying only a small minority managed to integrate themselves, France 24 reported. There "is no other solution than the dismantlement of the camps and the deportation of individuals."
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Dibrani would be readmitted to France if a review found that police had broken rules by arresting her on school property. Valls ordered officials to review the case and will return from vacation in the former French colony of Martinique Saturday.
Meanwhile, Kosovo's Vice Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi, said Kosovar nationals are not allowed to request political asylum in France, stressing his excellent relations with the French government. He reiterated his wish for Kosovo to enter the Schengen accord, which allows citizens of member European countries to freely move across their borders.
The move would help battle illegal immigration and ease pressures on local youths, who face a 31 percent unemployment rate, he told Le Monde.
The Dibrani incident is testimony to France's controversial immigration policies, seen most recently in attitudes toward Syrian refugees.
The issue took center stage last week when 65 Syrian refugees blockaded a terminal of the northern French port of Calais, disrupting a popular ferry and train route to the U.K. They vowed not to leave until they were admitted by Britain, in an effort to escape what they said were undignified living conditions in France, France 24 reported.
On Thursday, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal defended his country's Syrian efforts in response to harsh criticism from human-rights groups, which have suggested that France is not doing enough. "Since the start of the crisis, a total of nearly 3,000 Syrian nationals have been welcomed in France," he said, and French officials have agreed to take in an additional 500 Wednesday at the request of the United Nations.
Germany, however, has taken in 5,000; Sweden offered to give permanent asylum to all Syrians who applied for residency, Eva Akerman Borje, chairwoman of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, told Al Jazeera America earlier this month.
"Sweden is one of the countries that are saying migration is prosperity, it's a way of improving yourself," she said.
With wire services