Thousands of school students have marched through Paris to demand the return to France of a 15-year-old Roma girl whose arrest during a school outing has deeply embarrassed the French government.
Police used teargas when a few demonstrators hurled bottles and tried to force barricades, but the march, and strikes at a score of lycées, passed off without serious incident. A much bigger demonstration is planned in the Place de la Bastille in the centre of Paris on Friday.
The treatment of a Kosovan Leonarda Dibrani, who was detained in front of her schoolmates on a school bus trip last week, threatens to crystallise the anger of French youth and left-wingers against the Socialist-led government, and especially its immigration policy. The marchers also carried banners calling for the return of a 19-year-old Armenian boy, Khatchik Kachatryan, who was expelled last month.
Leonarda was removed from a bus during a school outing last Wednesday so that she could be expelled from France after her family’s final appeal for political asylum had been refused.
Left-wing politicians, human rights groups and even government ministers have complained that the incident trampled Leonarda’s human rights and France’s “Republican values”. Many of the young demonstrators heaped blame on the hardline Interior Minister, Manuel Valls.
“Everybody should have a chance. Everybody should have a job, work and have a family. When children try to achieve that, France refuses, and that is not my country,” said one protester, Romain Desprez.
A government inquiry will report on the incident on Friday. The Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has promised that Leonarda and her family can return, at French taxpayers’ expense, if the correct procedures were ignored.
The girl’s father, Resat Dibrani, who faces allegations of violence against Leonarda and her sister, further confused an already tangled affair. He told French journalists who have flocked to interview the family in Kosovo that his children had been born in Italy and that, as European Union citizens, they had a right to live in France.
He said that he had disguised this fact from the French authorities since he first entered France illegally in 2009. He said that he had not wanted to weaken his own claim for political asylum.
Leonarda, who speaks fluent French after living for almost five years in the Doubs department of eastern France, said that she hoped to return as soon as possible. “My home is in France,” she said. “I don’t speak the language here and I don’t know anyone. I just want to go back to France and forget everything that happened.”