PARIS (AFP) - French President Francois Hollande has offered a Roma schoolgirl whose controversial deportation sparked mass student protests the chance to come back to France, but without her family.
Leonarda Dibrani's eviction caused an outcry because she was detained during a school trip before being deported with her family to Kosovo, and students took to the streets this week demanding the 15-year-old return and Interior Minister Manuel Valls resign.
"If she makes a request, and if she wants to continue her studies, she will be given a welcome, but only she," Hollande said live on television on Saturday, in his first remarks on an affair that burst into the limelight four days ago.
He cited the results of a formal probe published on Saturday, which found that the deportation was lawful but that police could have used better judgement in the way they handled it.
Valls hailed Hollande's move as "a gesture of generosity towards Leonarda", but the interior minister reiterated in a newspaper interview that "the family will not return".
The Roma teenager immediately turned down Hollande's offer, speaking from the town of Mitrovica in Kosovo where she has been living with her family since their October 9 deportation from the eastern French town of Levier.
"I will not go alone to France, I will not abandon my family. I'm not the only one who has to go to school, there are also my brothers and sisters," she said in fluent French.
Her father Resat, 47, added that the family would not be divided and would return to France by any means.
"My children were integrated in France, we continue to fight as my children are strangers here" in Kosovo, he said.
Dibrani's deportation only emerged into the public realm this week after it was brought to light by a non-governmental organisation.
Her parents and five brothers and sisters had lived in France for four years while their asylum bid was processed. It was eventually rejected in the summer.
Much of the anger surrounding the case has focused on how Dibrani was forced off a bus full of classmates during a school outing.
The ministry probe found that police had gone to the family home in the morning of October 9 to deport all members, but found the teenager was not there as she had slept at a friend's house before the trip.
French law bans any intervention on youngsters while they are at or near school.
The report found that while the bus was nowhere near Dibrani's school, police "did not demonstrate the necessary discernment".
In his televised appearance, Hollande said that from now on, any such intervention would be banned during school hours.
But critics nevertheless slammed his decision to invite Dibrani back alone.
The "Left Party", co-directed by the figurehead of France's far left Jean-Luc Melenchon, said it was a decision of "abject cruelty".
"The young schoolgirl has been told by the president to choose between living with her family or returning alone to France to continue her studies," it said.
The case has raised the sensitive issue of young students in France who are threatened with deportation.
By law, a minor on his or her own cannot be deported, and students are only evicted from France after they come of age or if their parents are also sent away.
It has also thrown the spotlight on the interior minister, whose popularity in France far exceeds that of his boss Hollande but who has attracted controversy in the past.
Last month, Valls triggered an outcry when 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.
But a survey by polling firm BVA published on Saturday in the Le Parisien daily showed that 74 percent of the French approved of Valls's position on the Dibrani controversy.
The case was further complicated by revelations that Dibrani's father had lied about his family's Kosovo origins to have a better chance of obtaining asylum.
In an interview with AFP Thursday, Resat said only he had been born in Kosovo and that his wife and five of his six children, including Leonarda, were born in Italy.
The ministry probe also found that Leonarda and her sister were taken in by French social services after having accused their father of violence - a claim they later retracted.
Last year, 36,822 immigrants, many of them Roma, were deported from France, a nearly 12 percent rise from 2011.