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15-Year-Old Roma Girl's Deportation Shakes Up France's Immigration Debate

[All links lead to French-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

student-activist mobilization Leonarda

A student protestor during the demonstrations supporting undocumented students Leonarda and Khatchik, Paris, 18 October 2013. By Valentina Camozza, Copyright Demotix

The deportation of Leonarda Dibrani, a 15-year-old Roma student, continues to rattle France. It is not the first time that a school-aged child has been forced out of the country, but this time all the ingredients were there to expose, to a shocking degree, the contradictions of the country's poorly executed immigration policy, against the backdrop of a rise in deportations of undocumented immigrants, in the stigmatization of Roma people, and in political power of the populist extreme right.

The facts are as follows: On 9 October, just a few months shy of her family's five-year anniversary in France – a milestone which which would have granted them eligibility for a residence permit – the girl was forced to get off the bus that she was riding in on a class field trip. She was put on a plane by the police along with her mother and siblings to join her father, who had been deported the night before, in Kosovo. She has never lived there, she doesn't speak the language, and will be the target of discrimination there.

The Réseau Education sans frontières (Network for Education Without Borders), which lobbies against the deportation of students, quickly mobilized and denounced the actions of “blind and inhumane politicians”. A Facebook page was created with more than 3,200 likes, and a petition was opened on Avaaz:   

The petition “Leonarda 15 years old arrested and deported” seems to be very successful. New signatures are constantly arriving http://t.co/kCurd50f6H - lebrubru (@lebrubru) October 15, 2013 

A political firestorm

As a first move after the outcry, and in the absence of both the Minister of Interior and the President who were both overseas at the time, the Prime Minister ordered an administrative inquiry about the conditions of Leonarda's deportation, promising the family would come back if there was a error.

France's Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls, who oversees policy on migrants and asylum seekers and enjoys high popularity in opinion polls, is ruffling feathers more and more, even within his own party, with his tendency to act alone without consulting the rest of the government. Huffington Post blogger-journalist Romain Herreros wondered if this time, with the case of Leonarda's deportation, the minister went too far: 

What Valls’ strategy is masking about immigration http://t.co/N76OHZU6AK via @LeHuffPost — Romain Herreros (@Romain_Herreros) October 18, 2013

The case has exposed a rift in the ruling French Socialist Party (PS) [en]. The cacophony in the media and elsewhere grew louder all the way to the top, as described in the blog Sarkofrance saison 2:   

Le gouvernement a été ébranlé. Peut-on le dire ? Oui. Jean-Marc Ayrault a demandé une enquête; Manuel Valls a fait publier un communiqué défensif. Le président de l'Assemblée nationale, Claude Bartolone, celui qui institutionnellement pourrait remplacer le président de la République si celui clamse, a fustigé publiquement les conditions de l'arrestation. Le Parti du président, le PS, s'est indigné. François Hollande, en déplacement à quelque 3.000 kilomètres de là, a réagi. Cette indignation s'est vue jusque dans les blogs politiques.

The government has been weakened. Can one say this? Yes. [Prime Minister] Jean-Marc Ayrault called for an inquiry; Manuel Valls issued a defensive statement. The president of the National Assembly, Claude Bartolone, the very person who could, based on the institutional order, replace the president of the Republic if it were to collapse, publicly denounced the circumstances of the arrest. The President's Party, the PS grew indignant. François Hollande, some 3,000 kilometers from here reacted. Even the political blogs perceived this indignation.

Students protesting Leonarda Khatchik Paris

Students protest during the demonstrations in support of Leonarda and Khatchik, undocumented students in Paris, 18 October 2013. Photo by Valentina Camozza. Copyright: Demotix

On the eve of school holidays, on the 17 and 18 of October, thousands of secondary school students blocked access to their schools and protested in support of deported undocumented students. The demonstration was meant to demand the return of Leonarda, but it received limited public support from an immigration-weary public. Its motives have been deemed purely political by some, such as journalist Patrice de Plunkett:   

Ce qui s'exprime ressemble plutôt à un règlement de comptes. Le secrétaire national du PS expliquant, au ministre PS de l'Education nationale, que les lycéens PS bloquent des lycées pour contester le ministre PS de l'Intérieur ? ça va encore faire du joli dans les sondages.

There seems to be some sort of settling of scores (between leaders of the Socialist Party PS). The national secretary of the party explaining to the Minister of National Education [also from the same party] that left-leaning students are blocking school gates to challenge the Minister of the Interior? This internal battle is going to look fabulous in the polls [for the socialist party]  

Meanwhile, others saw nothing but political manipulation against the already divided government: 

[AFP] #Léonarda: according to [former Interior Minister and former member of the PS] Chevènement,  students might be manipulated to undermine Valls http://t.co/GFFgGJ9z3q [fr] — J-P. Chevènement (@chevenement) October 18, 2013 (ed's note: as a consequence of the internal battle within the party) 

Blogger Seb Musset called for taking politics out of emotional issues:   

Pendant combien de temps encore 20.000 Roms vont être instrumentalisés à gauche comme à droite dans le débat politique, et tout ça pour un statu quo ? Rien ne change pour eux, rien ne change dans notre regard. 

How much longer do 20,000 Roma have to be used by both the left and right as pawns in the political debate, and all of that just to maintain the status quo? Nothing ever changes for them, nothing changes in our eyes. 

Lies and imbroglio

In order to sort through what has become the Leonarda Affair, an investigation was requested by the prime minister to understand the context of the deportation. Even before the report of the investigation was made public, word got out that the family was far from exemplary, did not make an effort to integrate into French society, and that the father, aside from having a reputation for violence had lied about his wife's nationality and that of his children, who were all in fact born in Italy. These details turned everyone into a judge of the validity of the deportation: 

Pages 16 and 17 of the report (about the unwillingness of the family to integrate #Leonarda) are damning. http://t.co/wiesb3Wg3v [fr]— Olivier Siou (@oliviersiou1) October 19, 2013

Christophe Giltay of RTLInfo.be wrote:

Le plus fou c’est que si ce qu’il [le père] dit est vrai, ses enfants sont de nationalité italienne, ils ont donc tout à fait le droit de résider en France comme partout dans l’union européenne. Et comme c’est le père qui a menti à l’office des étrangers, la femme et les enfants ne risquent rien devant la justice française. Mais ont-ils vraiment la nationalité italienne ? Difficile à savoir puisqu’ils ont détruit leurs papiers.

The most insane part is that if what he (the father) says is true, his children are Italian. They therefore absolutely do have the right to reside in France or anywhere else in the E.U. And if it is the father who has been dishonest with the department of immigration the wife and children are at no risk if called before the French justice system. But are they really of Italian nationality? It is difficult to know as they destroyed their documents. 

A challenge specific to the Roma population? Christophe Bouillaud, political science professor at IEP in Grenoble, reflected on how impossible it is for this underclass to escape their circumstances, despite the schemes that they may drum up: 

De fait, le coup de théâtre de l’italianité (légale) des membres de la famille n’en est peut-être pas un, il peut s’agir d’une autre embrouille encore, mais une fuite d’Italie, c’est tout à fait possible, c’est crédible,  cela en dit long sur la condition des “zingari” en Italie. On peut d’ailleurs supposer qu’ils ne savent pas eux-mêmes quelle est leur nationalité réelle en fait. Le père aurait déclaré à la presse que sa femme et ses enfants avaient des papiers italiens qu’ils auraient détruits, c’est bien possible qu’ils n’aient justement pas eu de tels documents de la part d’une administration italienne assez peu prompte à démêler les fils compliqués de ces vies transnationales.

In fact, the surprising turn of events that certain members of their family are legally Italian may be much ado about nothing. It could be one more scheme, but it is also possible that they just want to escape from Italy. If that is the case, it says a lot about the condition of the “zingari” [gypsies] in Italy. One could still suppose that they themselves don't even know what their actual nationality is. The father would have revealed to the press that his wife and children had Italian papers that they would have destroyed. It's very possible that they didn't have the documents due to the Italian bureaucracy that is slow to untangle the maze of these transnational lives. 

Is a return possible?

While the legal experts were pondering the possibility of a compromise for her, President François Hollande announced on the 19 October that because places of academic activity are exempt from deportation, Leonarda could return to France to complete her education, but without her family. The girl, who has publicized her cause with some of the characteristic awkwardness of someone of her age, has publicly refused. 

Leonarda journalists

Leonarda faces a large crowd of journalists from France and Kosovo.  Mitrovica-Kosovo, 19 October 2013. Photo Agron Beqiri, copyright Demotix.

The public debate is ongoing. Gilles Langoureau, an activist for the Left Front coalition, a coalition of left-leaning political parties and a frequently challenging ally for the current government, posted the following statement on Facebook: 

#Léonarda: Une enfant de 15 ans est ainsi mise en situation de choisir entre l’école de la République et ses parents, entre la France et sa famille. Le piètre jugement de Salomon de François Hollande contrevient à l’esprit de la Convention internationale des droits de l’enfant et à l’article 8 de la Convention européenne des droits de l’homme. Il est humainement indigne [...].

#Léonarda: A 15-year-old child is put in the position to choose between Republican school and her parents, between France and her family. The poor judgement of Solomon by [President] François Hollande goes against the spirit of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child and also against Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is inhuman and shameful [...].

Thomas Wieder, a journalist from Le Monde, stated: 

#Leonarda, as a new commentator, responds to Hollande's decision through the 24-hours news channels. It's completely crazy! — Thomas Wieder (@ThomasWieder) October 19, 2013

Meanwhile, the expulsion of an Armenian high school student named Khatchit, this time one who is legally an adult, has also arisen. Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, has cut his trip to the Caribbean short and is paying very close attention. 

Latest update: Leonarda and her family are not, as one may have feared, in safe circumstances in Kosovo [Albanian]:

“Familja Dibrani ishte duke ecur në Mitrovicë kur ata janë sulmuar nga persona të panjohur”, ka thënë një oficer policie.

“The Dibrani family was walking in Mitrovica when they were attacked by unidentified people”, reports a police officer. 

 This article was co-written with Suzanne Lehn.

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