Migration Debate Deportation Scandal Grips France

Controversy surrounding the deportation of a 15-year-old Roma girl and her family continues to undermine the government of French President François Hollande. The scandal is the latest flare-up in the country's deeply divisive immigration debate.
Leonarda Dibrani and her family have become the latest focus of France's agonized debate over immigration.

Leonarda Dibrani and her family have become the latest focus of France's agonized debate over immigration.

Foto: ARMEND NIMANI/ AFP

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls on Sunday defended his decision to deport a 15-year-old Roma girl and her family to Kosovo after they lost their bid for asylum. The deportation has prompted calls for the minister's resignation by students and leftist groups.

Valls, the point person on immigration  policy in François Hollande 's Socialist government, has been assailed in the French media ever since police detained Leonarda Dibrani in front of her classmates while on a fieldtrip on Oct. 9. Dibrani and the rest of her family, who were living in Levier in eastern France, were all flown to Kosovo  that day.

Thousands of secondary school students demonstrated in Paris and across the country last week against the government, while some politicians have backed students' demands that Valls step down, according to French media.

"We should be proud of what we are doing, rather than feeling sorry for ourselves," Valls told the French weekly Journal de Dimanche. He added, "Nothing will make me deviate from my path. The law must be applied and this family must not come back to France"

The interior minister has taken a hard line on illegal immigration , causing a rift within his own center-left party. Valls argued last month that France's 20,000 Roma  migrants were "different" and not capable of integrating into French society, suggesting they should be returned to their countries of origin.

Criticism from Left and Right

Valls' most recent comments came a day after an internal investigation by the Interior Ministry found that the deportation of the Debrani family was legal, even if the manner in which it was conducted lacked judgment. Hollande echoed the findings of the report after it was released on Saturday, while indicating that Dibrani could return to France to continue her schooling. "If she makes a request, and if she wants to continue her studies, she will be given a welcome, but only she," Hollande said on live French television.

Hollande was criticized on both the left and the right for the move. The leader of the center-right opposition Union for a Popular Movement accused the prime minister of undermining the "authority of the state," while the Left Party called the decision not to allow her family to join her one of "abject cruelty."

For her part, Dibrani reportedly declined the offer. "I will not go to France, I will not abandon my family. I'm not the only one who has to go to school, there are also my brothers and sisters," she said, according to French newswire AFP. The girl's father, Resat Dibrani, added that his family, which had been living in France since 2009, would fight to return together, saying his "children were integrated in France."

The Interior Ministry report, however, determined that the father had shown "no real interest in integrating into French society." He apparently also turned down job offers, was arrested, and physically abused Leonarda and her elder sister, news website France 24 reported.

Moreover, Resat Dibrani confirmed to the AFP that he had misled French authorities by saying that his entire family had been born in Kosovo in order to boost their asylum prospects. In reality, only he was born in Kosovo, while his wife and five of his six children were born in Italy.

The Dibrani case appears to have further damaged the popularity of the embattled Hollande. A new poll published Sunday by the Journal de Dimanche gave him a record low approval rating of 23 percent. However, a survey conducted by French pollster BVA, published in Saturday's Le Parisien, showed that around 77 percent of the French public support Valls' stance on the situation, indicating continued French unease with immigration.

Over 10,000 Roma -- mostly from Romania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia -- were forcefully evicted from informal settlements in France during the first half of 2013, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.

caa -- with wires