By Nicholas Vinocur and Fatos Bytyci
PARIS/MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - A 15-year-old girl taken off a school bus and deported to Kosovo has become the latest focus of France's agonized debate over migration, putting Interior Minister Manuel Valls under fire from his own Socialist lawmakers.
Hundreds of pupils blocked high schools in the Paris region and joined protests over expulsions as the government sought to deflect blame from Valls, promising to review the treatment of Leonarda Dibrani, whose family entered France illegally in 2009 and had exhausted legal appeals against expulsion.
Some Socialist lawmakers accused Valls, the most popular minister in President Francois Hollande's government, of betraying the left's values with tough immigration policies that led to the girl's arrest during a class outing.
Valls has stepped up rhetoric against Roma migrants living in illegal camps in French cities as support for the far-right anti-immigration National Front has surged in opinion polls ahead of municipal and European elections next year.
Government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem defended the minister and rebuffed calls for his resignation, urging patience while the incident is investigated.
"If a school bus was indeed stopped and a child extracted in full view of her classmates, that is indeed shocking," she told RTL radio. "But today, it's not clear things happened that way."
But the uproar showed no signs of abating, with hundreds of high school students marching through central Paris and hundreds more protesting outside some 20 schools over the expulsion of Dibrani and a boy in a separate case.
"Valls, you're done. The youth is in the streets," the students chanted while holding up signs proclaiming "Education for all" and "Support for Leonarda".
'MY HOME IS IN FRANCE'
Dibrani, who is staying in a flat paid for by the Kosovo government in the northern city of Mitrovica, told Reuters she wanted to return to France quickly because she speaks no Albanian and has no links to Kosovo.
"My home is in France," she said. "In France I have everything - my friends, my boyfriend, my teachers, my school, my future, all of it is in France, and here there is nothing."
The schoolgirl, who was born in Italy and travelled with her Kosovan father to France, where he sought political asylum, added that she felt deeply embarrassed when she was detained by police in front of her classmates.
Her father, Reshat, admitted to lying on his request for political asylum by claiming the children were from Kosovo, saying he thought it would improve his chances of obtaining asylum. But he argued the request had been turned down because the family is of Roma descent.
French police said they were carrying out orders after the family's application for political asylum was turned down on grounds of "insufficient prospect of social and economic integration" in France.
The Socialist speaker of the lower house of parliament, Claude Bartolone, said the left risked "losing its soul", and Frederic Hocquard, a senior party member, asked in a Tweet: "When do we take action to distance Valls from the government?"
After initially dismissing the criticism as "sterile polemics", Valls was forced to fend off charges of betraying the left during a trip to the French Caribbean island of Martinique.
"I am of the left because I believe we need policies that uphold the rule of law, human rights and humanity, but also a strong and clear policy to regulate migratory flows," he said.
Highlighting tensions over migration, the European Court of Human Rights condemned France for having evicted a group of 40 itinerant migrants from a makeshift camp near Paris without making provisions to find them shelter afterward.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and Ingrid Melander in Paris and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg; editing by Paul Taylor and Tom Pfeiffer)