|Teenage girl’s expulsion casts uneasy spotlight on French mistreatment of Roma minority
Yet another storm over France's treatment of ethnic Roma erupted following the deportation to Kosovo of a 15-year-old girl who was detained by police during a school trip.
The incident occurred in the eastern town of Levier on October 9 but only came to light this week after being highlighted by an NGO that campaigns against the expulsion of school-age children, AFP reports.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls defended the deportation of Leonarda, her parents and five siblings as perfectly legal and dismissed as exaggerated claims the girl had been marched off the school bus in a humiliating and traumatizing manner.
He nevertheless ordered officials to review how the case had been handled.
France's Defender of Rights, the equivalent of a public ombudsman in other countries, also said Wednesday he would be investigating the case and senior members of the ruling Socialist Party called for the girl and her family to be allowed back into France pending its conclusion.
“There is the law but there are also values on which the left must never compromise,'' the Socialist speaker of the National Assembly Claude Bartolone said in a tweet on the incident.
Education Minister Vincent Peillon said: “School has to be a sanctuary, we have to retain our principles based on rights and humanity.''
The Leonarda row follows a outcry last month over remarks by Valls in which he said most of the 20,000 Roma in France had no intention of assimilating and should be sent back to their countries of origin.
Polls have suggested as many as three in four French voters support that stance and Valls, who was already France's most popular politician, has enjoyed a surge in his standing as a result of comments regarded as racist by his critics.
Responding to the latest avalanche of criticism to come his way, Valls insisted that the deportation of Leonarda and the rest of her family was in line with established procedure following the rejection of their application for asylum.
”Everyone should keep a cool head. Do not for one single moment doubt that the rules, based on the law, are applied by my services with intelligence, discretion and humanity,'' the minister said during a trip to the western town of Lorient.
“We have to carry out these deportations,'' he added. “It is of course a difficult subject but any immigration policy requires respect for the law, respect for individuals and great firmness. I am accountable for that to the French people.''
As well as the issue of how Leonarda was detained, the treatment of her family has been attacked as inhumane because they were apparently integrating into France. Her supporters say she had become a fluent French speaker and was doing well at school.
The exact circumstances in which the girl was detained remained unclear but both the interior ministry's version and the account of a teacher on the bus agree that her arrest did not take place in view of other pupils.
The teacher, who gave her account via the Network for Education without Borders (RESF), however claimed that the other children were fully aware of what was happening and were distressed by the incident.
Among those calling for Leonarda and her family to be brought back to France was Harlem Desir, the first secretary of the Socialist Party who is better known for having founded SOS Racisme, a hugely influential campaign group, in the 1980s.