Protests Follow France's Expulsion of Two Minority Students

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PARIS -- Shock over France's recent expulsion of a 19-year-old Armenian student and a 15-year-old Kosovar girl, whom the police took off a school bus so that she and her family could be sent back to Kosovo, gathered momentum on Thursday with protests by students condemning the expulsions and calling for the resignation of the interior minister.

The minister, Manuel Valls, a member of the Socialist government of President François Hollande, has been a strong proponent in particular of deporting the Roma. But Mr. Valls has also removed others who lacked proper immigration papers, a policy also followed by the previous government, which was led by the conservatives.

On Thursday, it appeared that the government was questioning Mr. Valls's judgment, at the least, in allowing the police to pull children out of school to be deported.

"If they stopped a school bus to seize a child in front of her classmates, then it's extremely shocking," a government spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said, referring to the case of the Kosovar girl.

The racial politics surrounding the Roma minority in France shadowed the expulsion of Leonarda Dibrani, the Kosovar girl, who is also Roma, but not the case of the other student, Khatchik Kachatryan, 19.

Many had expected the Socialist government of Mr. Hollande to adopt a less confrontational approach to France's troubles with the Roma than the previous government of Nicolas Sarkozy, but there have been few changes. The European Union has expressed dismay and threatened sanctions after reports of the deportations.

Most of the Roma, a minority of 20,000 in France, come from Bulgaria and Romania and live on the outskirts of cities, often in makeshift camps, and sometimes travel from place to place. Some have been accused of running criminal gangs of young girls and children who prey on tourists, especially in Paris, Marseille and Lyons.

The Interior Ministry has begun an investigation into the case of Ms. Dibrani, who was expelled on Oct. 9. The findings were expected Friday, and the government has promised to annul the expulsion if there were irregularities.

Mr. Valls has been increasingly outspoken about the social difficulties that Roma immigrants pose.

In September, his remark in a television interview that "the majority must be returned to the borders" set off a wave of criticism. In the interview, with BFM Television, he said that France did not have "an obligation to welcome these populations."

He said in another interview that the Roma had "a way of life that is different from ours," suggesting that they could not be integrated.

His candor, more than the government's expulsion policy, shocked many people. Polls showed that a majority of French people agreed with him that the Roma should be expelled, and Mr. Valls enjoys wide popularity.

Despite the pervasive image here of the Roma as petty criminals and pickpockets, it did not reflect the situation of Ms. Dibrani, who was forced to get off a school bus and then into a police car in front of her classmates, leaving some of them thinking that she had committed a robbery or other crime, her teachers said.

Ms. Dibrani had lived in France for nearly five years and spoke "perfect French," said her teachers, who wrote an open letter of protest over the incident that was posted online by the Network for Education Without Borders, a group that defends the right of immigrant children to study in France.

"We are profoundly shocked by the methods used to send back the children of the Roma minority to countries they do not know and where they can not speak the language," wrote the teachers, from André Malraux Junior High School and Toussaint L'Ouverture High School in Levier, where Ms. Dibrani was a student.

Richard Moyon, the head of the Network for Education Without Borders, said that his organization's work had sharply reduced the number of families with children in school who were expelled from the country. But such expulsions, he said, were "irresponsible" of the government because they could lead to a more severe policy on deportations if a more conservative government came to power.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 17, 2013 2:01 PM


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