After five days of political crisis, the saga of a Roma schoolgirl deported from France exploded in the face of President François Hollande today.
Mr Hollande tried to defuse the row by offering to allow Leonarda Dibrani, 15, who was detained during a school bus trip 10 days ago, to resume her studies in France alone.
His compromise, which was dismissed by all sides, deepened a crisis which has exposed cabinet rifts on migration policy and crystallised the frustration of young people with the Socialist-led government.
During a solemn, national TV address entirely devoted to the affair on Saturday, the President said that Leonarda could return – but without her parents and her four siblings.
The deportation of Leonarda and her family had been legal, Mr Hollande said, but officials in eastern France had acted clumsily in removing the girl from a bus in front of her schoolmates. In future, new rules would forbid the detention of the children of illegal immigrants during school activities.
Leonarda listened to the President’s speech on a French journalist’s phone in Kosovo. Live on television, she dismissed the offer as “heartless”. “I am not going back to France alone,” she said. “I will not abandon my family.” Her father, Resat Dibrani, 43, who has admitted lying to French authorities about his family’s birthplace, said Mr Hollande had made a “shit” decision.
Polls suggest more than 70 per cent of French people have no problem with Leonarda’s deportation. Lycee students in Paris and other cities disagree. Last week, they blocked schools and marched in the streets in protest.
President Hollande had stayed silent on the affair for the three days before his brief – but extraordinary – TV address from the Elysée Palace on Saturday. He offered Leonarda the right to return alone to her school in the Doubs department near the Swiss border. He said that the French government would organise – and implicitly pay for – a host family.
It emerged later that Mr Hollande had been obliged to frame this compromise to end a slanging match on Saturday between his Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and the hardline interior minister, Manuel Valls.
Mr Ayrault wanted the whole family to return. Mr Valls originally wanted none of them to come back.
The interior minister angered left-wingers last month when he said few of the 20,000 Roma gypsies from eastern Europe had a “capacity” to integrate into French life. Their “destiny”, he said, was to “go home”. His comments partly explain why the “affaire Leonarda” has become such a big issue.
In an interview with a French newspaper today, he was unrepentant.
“Nothing will make me deviate from my path,” he said. “The law must be applied and this family (Leonarda apart) must not come back to France.”