Outrage over the seemingly heavy-handed expulsion of a Roma schoolgirl from France forced Interior Minister Manuel Valls on Wednesday to launch an investigation. Leonarda Dibrani (pictured), 15, was seized by police while on a class trip.
France’s crisis of conscience about how to deal with its Roma immigrants hit a new low this week following the controversial expulsion of a Kosovo schoolgirl under murky circumstances.
The teenager – identified as 15-year-old Leonarda Dibrani – was taken from a school trip in the Doubs region in eastern France on October 9, according to some of her teachers, sparking outrage among the students.
A Kosovar of Roma gypsy origin, Leonarda was apparently not at home when police arrived at the family home to expel her mother and her six children. Her father had already been expelled from a detention centre on October 8.
The deportation of illegal Roma immigrants is part of a government crackdown – instituted by the previous centre-right administration of Nicolas Sarkozy – which has included the dismantling of Roma camps across France.
Opinion polls show that most French people (93%) agree that the Roma do not integrate well in France and are broadly supportive (77%) of the government’s policies.
But the seemingly heavy-handed nature of last week’s expulsion of a student on a school bus during a class outing has put French Interior Minister Manuel Valls in a difficult position.
On Wednesday, Valls launched an investigation into the legality of the deportation of the schoolgirl and her family.
"The interior minister today launched an administrative investigation into the conditions of this expulsion to verify if all the rules were respected,” said Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault following a meeting with Valls on Wednesday.
Ayrault has sparked fury among some of his fellow Socialist cabinet members in recent days over his defense of Valls’ policies on the Roma issue.
Last month, the European Union warned France that it could face sanctions over its treatment of its Roma community after Valls declared that France was “not here to welcome these populations”.
‘She cried a lot. I took her in my arms’
The integration of the Roma community has become a thorny issue in France, months ahead of local elections scheduled for March next year.
The community’s high poverty levels and seemingly high rates of involvement in petty crime has not endeared the Roma to the French people even as they are deeply uncomfortable about displaying a prejudice.
While French law forbids record keeping of racial, ethnic or religious identity, residents of major cities such as Paris are familiar with rackets of mostly young pickpockets on the metro and around ATM machines. Most incidents do not end in arrests or charges since the perpetrators are minors.
But this case has sparked outrage as accounts of the traumatic nature of the arrest have appeared in the French press.
According to the French news site Mediapart, the teenager was on a school trip when one of her teachers received a phone call from a local official asking her to stop the bus.
The teacher initially refused and was then connected to a border police officer whose “language was stronger and more direct. He told me that we had no choice, we had to stop the bus where we were because he wanted to get one of our students in an irregular situation,” a teacher, identified as Ms. Giacoma, told Mediapart.
According to Giacoma, she managed to negotiate an agreement to stop the bus in the parking lot of another high school since the bus at that point was on a busy ring road.
“I asked Leonarda to say goodbye to her friends and then I got off the bus with her,” said Giacoma. “We went inside the high school, out of sight, and I explained the situation. She cried a lot. I took her in my arms to comfort her and explained that she was going through difficult times, it would take a lot of courage…[then] a police car arrived, two uniformed police officers came out. I told them this was a totally inhumane way to proceed with the arrest of a young girl during her school activities and they could have done it differently. They told me they had no choice,” recounted Giacoma.
Her account of events differed markedly from that given by France's Interior Ministry, which claimed police met the girl's school bus when it returned from the trip.
According to the girl’s teachers and friends, Leonarda was a good student who arrived in France from her native Kosovo at an early age. France was the only country she knew and the girl is a native French speaker.
In a statement published on the Mediapart site earlier this week, the teachers of Leonarda’s school expressed their “shock” over “the methods used to return children from the Roma minority to countries they do not know, where they do not speak the language.” The statement went on to “demand the immediate return of the children to France for their safety”.