PARIS (AP) — Under fire from the far left and members of his own party, Socialist President Francois Hollande said Saturday that a 15-year-old girl who was detained in front of her classmates and expelled as an illegal immigrant can return to France. But the rest of the family cannot come with her.
Leonarda Dibrani, however, said she would not return without her family, who are Roma, or Gypsies.
The deportation of the Dibrani family, whose requests for asylum were rejected, has lit a firestorm in France, where such expulsions aren't rare but are always sensitive as the birthplace of the "rights of man" grapples with a flux of immigrants. It's an especially delicate issue for Hollande and the Socialists, who have tried to present a softer image of France's immigration policies and distance themselves from former Nicolas Sarkozy's tough stance.
The uproar began earlier this week when it became public that 15-year-old Leonarda was detained by police as she got off a bus from a school trip. Schools are considered places of sanctuary, and many thought that principle had been breached. The case has also opened a wider debate on France's immigration policies.
The story has since become more complicated, with the father admitting that he lied in his asylum application when he said the entire family fled Kosovo, where they were persecuted for being Roma. Leonarda, and most of her siblings, were born in Italy, though they do not have Italian citizenship.
A government report published Saturday found that the police followed the law, although the report said they didn't seem to realize the sensitivity of what they were doing.
Apparently fearing that conclusion wouldn't put the issue to rest, Hollande went on national television Saturday to walk the line between maintaining a tough stance on illegal immigrants and showing compassion for girl caught up in the storm.
He said Leonarda, considering the circumstances of her detention, could come back to France to go to school, if she wishes. But only she can come back. In Mitrovica, Kosovo, where the family is now living, Leonarda told reporters she would not come back without her family.
"Mr. Hollande has no heart for my family? He has no pity?" Leonarda asked, in an emotional scene in front of cameras.
Her father has threatened to return to France illegally and even said the family had already packed their bags.
"We thought that Hollande was a just person to protect a family," said Leonarda's mother, Dzemila Dibrani. "To give him my daughter, that is not possible."
Hollande also said local authorities would be told that such detentions cannot happen while children are in the care of their schools, whether inside the building, at the exit, on a bus or in after-school activities.
Although polls show that the majority of French people don't think the family should be allowed to return to France, the case has threatened to destabilize the Hollande government.
On Thursday and Friday, thousands of teenagers protested the expulsion, and students gathered again Saturday on the steps of the Opera house at Place de la Bastille. They are calling for French law to be changed so minors who are in school cannot be expelled, and their families can remain, too.
Qena reported from Mitrovica, Kosovo.