French interior minister faces outcry over Roma girl's deportation

PARIS (AFP) - France's Interior Minister Manuel Valls has defended the treatment of a 15-year-old Roma girl who was detained by police during a school trip and deported to Kosovo, amid an outcry within the ruling party.

Valls on Wednesday defended the deportation of Leonarda Dibrani, her parents and five siblings aged between one and 17 as legal, but ordered officials to review the handling of the case.

Confronted with an angry backlash from the left of the ruling Socialist party, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault promised the family would be brought back to France if the girl's rights were found to have been infringed.

"If there is a God we will be aboard the first plane back to France," Leonarda told AFP in an interview in the Kosovan town of Mitrovica, where the family have been given temporary housing by the local authorities.

"I'm frightened, I don't speak Albanian. My life is in France. I don't want to go to school here because I don't speak any of the local languages. I had freedom there. I do not want to stay here."

Opposition lawmakers backed Valls and warned that a decision to reverse the deportation would send out a damaging message that illegal immigrants were welcome in France.

"The law has to be applied and in this case an expulsion order had twice been upheld by the judicial system," said Christian Jacob, leader of the parliamentary group of the centre-right UMP.

The fresh row over France's treatment of Roma migrants erupted on Wednesday when an NGO that campaigns against the expulsion of school-age children highlighted the incident, which happened on October 9 in the eastern town of Levier.

Claude Bartolone, the speaker of the National Assembly, underlined the extent of the disquiet in the Socialist camp over the case.

"There is the law but there are also values on which the left must never compromise," he said in a tweet.

Education Minister Vincent Peillon said: "School has to be a sanctuary, we have to retain our principles based on rights and humanity." The controversy follows an outcry last month over remarks by Valls in which he said most of the 20,000 Roma in France had no intention of integrating and should be sent back to their countries of origin.

Polls have suggested as many as three in four French voters support that stance and Valls, who was already France's most popular politician, has enjoyed a surge in his standing as a result of comments regarded as racist by his critics.

Leonarda's father, Reshat, 47, who was deported a day before the rest of the family, said the family had been victimised because of their ethnicity.

"There are bad refugees in France who get papers easily - we didn't do anything bad. They did it to us because we are Roma. We would be treated differently if our skin was a different colour."

Valls insisted that the deportation of Leonarda and the rest of her family had been carried out in line with established procedure following the rejection of their application for asylum.

"Everyone should keep a cool head. Do not for one single moment doubt that the rules, based on the law, are applied by my services with intelligence, discretion and humanity," the minister said.

"We have to carry out these deportations," he added. "It is of course a difficult subject but any immigration policy requires respect for the law, respect for individuals and great firmness. I am accountable for that to the French people."

Speaking later upon his arrival at the French Caribbean island of Martinique, Valls stressed that he backed "a policy of integration".

The exact circumstances in which the girl was taken off the school bus remained unclear but both the interior ministry's version and the account of a teacher agree that her arrest did not take place in view of other pupils.

The teacher, who gave her account via the Network for Education without Borders (RESF), however, claimed that the other children were fully aware of what was happening and were deeply distressed by the incident.

Leonarda herself said: "All my friends and my teacher were crying, some of them asked me if I had killed someone or stolen something as the police were looking for me. When the police reached the bus they told me to get out and that I had to go back to Kosovo."

President Francois Hollande did not make any public statement on the row, prompting opposition accusations the government was in chaos.

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