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Europe

The Roma teenager and the French president

The 'Leonarda Affair', as it has become known in France, has divided the country and brought more criticism upon the head of President Francois Hollande, but stories like this happen in France all the time.

If it hadn't been for a sleepover there probably never would have been a "Leonarda Affair". On October 8, Kosovan national Resat Dibrani was arrested for disobeying an order to leave French territory and flown back to Kosovo. The police then went to get the rest of the family - his wife and their six children - so they could put them on a plane to Kosovo too.

Had they been able to do this, it is unlikely the case of Leonarda Dibrani would have gripped France in the way it has. Although far fewer illegal immigrants are deported from France than when Nicolas Sarkozy was in power, failed asylum seekers are still being arrested, handcuffed and flown out of the country in their thousands without causing a stir.

Echoes of Vichy and World War II

Anti riot police officers fire tear gas as high school students demonstrate in Paris, on October 18, 2013, in protest against the deportation of foreign pupils following the high-profile eviction of a 15-year-old Roma girl. Leonarda Dibrani (Photo: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

Critics of this policy have evoked the Second World War round ups and deportations from France

But the 15 year-old was sleeping at a friend's place that night so the police had to go and get her at school the following day. It was a field trip day. Her class was going to see a Peugeot car factory. The girl had to get off a school bus so she could be escorted back to her house by the police.

One Socialist lawmaker said "Going to get a child at school wasn't a deportation it was a "rafle" using the French word for round-up that evokes the mass arrest of Jews (including Jewish children) by the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during WWII.

Many other politicians on the left as well as President Hollande's girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler condemned the police action. Several, including the Socialist candidate to become mayor of Paris in up-coming municipal elections Anne Hidalgo, called for the family to be brought back to France, as did schoolchildren who demonstrated in the capital.

But Interior Minister Manuel Valls, by far the most popular politician in France at the moment, stood by the police. The decision of the police chief had been the right one, he said.

Refused asylum

The Dibrani's first claim of political asylum had been turned down in 2009. Several attempts to overturn this decision had failed. The family had exhausted every legal option open to them. They had been ordered to leave France and had not complied. To make them do so was simply applying the law. To bring them back would be to flout it.

High school students demonstrates at the Nation square in Paris, on October 18, 2013, in protest against the deportation of foreign pupils following the high-profile eviction of a 15-year-old Roma girl. Leonarda Dibrani (Photo:THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The case sparked mass demonstrations from school children across France


In a recent speech, Manuel Valls, responding to a steep rise in crime attributed by police to Romanian and Bulgarian nationals and the problem faced in many localities in France of illegal and often insalubrious Roma camps, said "it is not right that the Roma remain in France."

But the regional police chief directly responsible for the police action against the Dibranis said two other Roma families had just been granted political asylum in his area. So, this family had not been singled out on ethnic grounds.

The hard-liners position was strengthened when it emerged that Leonarda's father had lied on repeated occasions to the French authorities in the hope of gaining political asylum under false pretences. Although he was a Kosovar, his wife and children were born in Italy and had not been persecuted in the former Yugoslav province.

Hollande's response

For much of the week President Hollande kept out of it. The usual Hollande compromise wasn't open to him, pointed out le Figaro newspaper in an editorial. "Either he decides to bring Leonarda back or he doesn't." But, they'd underestimated their man. Addressing the nation on television, the President said that Leonarda would be allowed to return to France to continue her education but the rest of her family would have to stay in Kosovo; a decision that upset all and satisfied none.

France's President Francois Hollande makes a televised statement at the Elysee Palace in Paris, in this still image taken from video shot by France's private national TF1 television channel, and aired on its midday news broadcast on October 19, 2013. (Photo:REUTERS/TF1/Handout via Reuters)

Hollande's response to the 'Leonarda affair' has drawn criticism

He was criticized for intervening in the subject at all "in the manner of a king". He was attacked by the left for heartlessness, by left and right for suggesting to split up the family, by the right for riding roughshod over the law and sending the message to potential illegal immigrants that France is a soft touch.
Leonarda herself seemed to make a valid point by asking why she should be allowed to be educated in France and not her brothers and sisters.

Response from Kosovo

Commenting from Mitrovica (Kosovo), her father said "there is no way I accept dividing my family. If our return [to France] isn't possible nicely, it will have to be done by force, by any means necessary." While his daughter added "France is my country. I'll return one day or another. Then it will be me who will make the law!"

Whatever the family says, recent opinion polls show two thirds of French people do not want Leonarda to be allowed back into France while 77% of French people are now dissatisfied with Francois Hollande's presidency. In one other poll, 30% of French people now say they would like the anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine Le Pen to play a major role in French politics over the coming years.

The political impact of the Leonarda Affair is predictable. Increased disillusionment with the abilities of the man the French elected as their president only one and a half years ago and an increased feeling of powerlessness about illegal immigration.

France recently scaled back the cash incentives it was offering Roma families who agreed to return to Romania when they realised that some families were taking the cash several times over and effectively commuting between their countries of origin and France.

As for the Dibranis, it is likely that Leonarda at least will return to France soon. While for the others, if the mother and the other children can establish their Italian nationality, they will be able to return to France too. As for Leonarda's father if they can prove they were legally married, then he will eventually be allowed to join them as well.

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