The arrest of a Roma girl on a school bus in front of her classmates, and her subsequent deportation to Kosovo along with her family, has caused an uproar in France and split the ruling Socialist Party of President Francois Hollande.
Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had initiated a policy of demolishing Roma camps and deporting their residents, mostly to Romania. Sarkozy's rhetoric on the subject of Roma, Muslims and foreigners in general was dangerously provocative. Roma or Romani are the names of the people historically called gypsies, which is now considered pejorative.
To the surprise of some, the nominally socialist government, which replaced Sarkozy in the 2012 elections, has not backed away from this general policy. Interior Minister Manuel Valls has made recent statements that coincide with those of the previous government, and over the last couple of weeks, has moved again to deport migrant Roma (i.e. those not born or naturalized in France) and dismantle their encampments.
This has brought Valls, Prime Minister Ayrault and President Hollande into conflict with the left, including the Communist Party and some in their own party, human rights defenders and the European Commission.
The situation sharply escalated on Oct. 9, when immigration police took a 15 year old high school student, Leonarda Dibrani, off a school bus to be deported along with her parents who had lost an appeal for asylum in France.
Her father had already been expelled and police had not found Leonarda at home when they went to expel her mother along with six other siblings. So they called the teacher who was accompanying the field trip and forced her to order the bus to be stopped. Students on the bus did not know why the police were after Leonarda, and some began to speculate that perhaps she had "stolen something." Leonarda's teacher remonstrated angrily with the police about the cruelty of arresting a child in this way, but was rebuffed.
There is prejudice in France, as in many other European countries, against the Roma people, who are often poor and live in precarious and marginalized situations. They are often stigmatized with racist stereotypes. In Leonarda's case, she has lived in France most of her life and speaks fluent French. She was doing well in school where she is popular with non-Roma fellow students.
In Kosovo, Leonarda and her family face a life of much greater instability, poverty and danger. Since the Kosovo War of 1998-1999 and under independent Kosovo, many Roma have been expelled and remaining families face bad treatment.
Previously, Interior Minister Valls had been sharply criticized by the European Commission for stating that most of the 20,000 or so immigrant Roma in France should be deported because they have a very different lifestyle from the French people and cannot be assimilated, language shockingly similar to that adopted by fascists of various countries. The commission pointed out that European Union rules allow free movement among the member states.
Many commentators speculate that the current government has adopted a highly visible anti-Roma stance because one of its rival political parties, the far right, neo-fascist National Front headed by former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, has been doing well in some areas of the country, in part because of its demagogic scapegoating of immigrants for France's economic troubles.
However, the other France soon raised its voice. On Thursday, thousands of high school students in Paris and elsewhere hit the streets demanding justice for Leonarda and for another deported student, Katchiki Kachatryan, who is of Armenian origin.
The French left also spoke out forcefully. The French Communist Party daily, L'Humanité, published numerous articles on the case, all of them critical of the government's policy and action and demanding change, and top leaders of the Party, including Secretary General Pierre Laurent, and the French Young Communist League joined the student demonstrations.
Green Party members of Hollande's cabinet also denounced the government and hinted that this might endanger their cooperation with it. Some Socialist Party leaders also denounced Valls' action, but it appears that Hollande will not criticize it, let alone oust Valls.
At writing, the government seems to be backing off a bit, suggesting that the case of Leonarda and her family might be reviewed.
Photo: Students filled the streets of Paris, in some cases barricading schools, in protest of the deportations of classmates and their families. (AP)