Leonarda and the School Bus, Nyer.com, October 22, 2013
It is painful to watch French President François Hollande endure one self-inflicted wound after another, the latest being his inept handling of the deportation of Leonarda Dibrani, a fifteen-year-old girl sent back to Kosovo earlier this month. Leonarda’s family—father, mother, and six children—entered France four years ago and had exhausted various efforts to obtain asylum on the ground that, as members of the Roma ethnic minority, they faced discrimination. On October 9th, when French police arrived to repatriate the family, they learned that Leonarda was in school—in fact, on a school field trip with her classmates. The police tracked down her school bus, forced it to stop, and took the child away. The scene of a child being arrested in front her classmates struck a nerve and brought thousands of high-school students to the streets of French cities in protest. An official investigation found that the deportation had been carried out legally, but that the police could have shown greater “discernment.” Hollande, rather than let the matter die down, made a nationally televised address, in which he offered a kind of Solomonic compromise: Leonarda was welcome to return to finish her studies in France—but without the rest of her family.
Hollande’s offer seemed artificially designed to placate angry students and the unhappy left wing of his own socialist party while supporting Manuel Valls, the Minister of Interior, who was responsible for the deportation and has taken a vocal (and popular) anti-immigrant stance. Predictably, it satisfied no one: it was neither legally nor morally coherent. If the family is here in violation of the law, why make an exception for one of its six children? If you are doing so on humanitarian grounds, why put the girl in the terrible position of having to choose between her family and her schooling?
Typical recent headlines: “The Left Disintegrates Over Immigration”; “Hollande Shipwrecked”; “Never Has a President of the Republic Been So Weak.” And these are from papers on the left. Those on the right have been no kinder: “Fiasco”; “Political Defeat”; “Marine Le Pen: France Becomes a Vacuum Cleaner for Illegal Immigrants.”
Illegal immigrants are repatriated from France every day. The same thing happens in the United States, where the dilemma of children with legal status and parents without it has similarly led to disruptions in schools and family separations. Why has this case been so explosive? There are several ingredients: dissatisfaction with Hollande; a spike in anti-Roma, anti-immigrant rhetoric within the Hollande government itself; a surge, in recent polls, in the popularity of the right-wing Front National of Marine Le Pen; second thoughts over European unification; and France’s ongoing difficulties integrating and accepting new populations of immigrants, legal or illegal.
Hollande was elected in 2012 largely due to dissatisfaction with the center-right President Nicolas Sarkozy’s handling of the economy. Hollande inherited a bad situation: high unemployment (10.5 per cent), low growth, a large deficit. He has zigzagged between anti-business populism and pro-business measures meant to promote growth. He raised the marginal tax rate on the very rich, to seventy-five per cent, but then also raised taxes on almost everyone else; he forced through a measure that would make it possible for some workers to retire at sixty, and then pushed back the retirement age for others. Hollande recently announced a “fiscal pause,” a brief respite from new taxes. It is a bad sign when a government has to announce a break in its own policies. The pause was promptly broken by the introduction of a new “ecotax,” meant to appease unhappy environmentalists in Hollande’s party.
This has set the scene for all manner of political demagoguery. Marine Le Pen has promised a firm retirement age of sixty, withdrawal from the euro—and, of course, tougher policies on immigrants. Valls, Hollande’s Minister of the Interior, took to the air waves in late September for no particular reason and made a series of sweeping anti-Roma statements. “This population has a style of life that is extremely different from our own and is in conflict with it,” he said. “There is no other solution than dismantling these encampments and sending them across the border. For cultural reasons, the occupants of these camps don’t want to integrate into our country and they are in the hands of networks of crime and prostitution.”
It should be noted that by the government’s own calculation the Roma population for all of France is only about fifteen thousand, in a country of sixty-five million. There are an estimated hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand sans papiers, or undocumented, immigrants in France—a tiny number compared to the United States, where there are an estimated eleven million. But the focus on illegal workers channels popular anxiety about the much larger number—about ten per cent of the population—of perfectly legal recent immigrants, many of them French citizens, who come from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Valls’s popularity has soared to about sixty-six per cent in recent months while that of his boss, Hollande, has sunk in some polls to the mid-twenties.
But Éric Fassin, a sociologist at the University of Paris VIII who is working on a book about the Roma, notes something new about the current anti-Roma campaign. Most of the Roma in France are citizens of countries like Romania and Bulgaria, which belong to the E.U., and so have a right to settle there. “The Roma are European and so the appeal is openly racist: they are unassimilated and unassimilatable,” Fassin said.
Particular to the Leonarda case is that, rather than coming from Romania or Bulgaria, her family is from Kosovo, which is not part of the E.U. As Roma who can simply be deported, then, they are a ripe target for popular frustration. Indeed, three-quarters of the French public support the decision to repatriate the family. (“Hollande is terrified of losing Socialist votes if he appears to be the least bit sympathetic to Roma,” Joan Wallach Scott, a scholar of French history at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, told me in an e-mail.)
Romania and Bulgaria are not yet part of the Schengen Area, the conglomeration of twenty-six countries in Europe between which you can travel without going through passport control, but they are due to join, perhaps as soon as next year. (Schengen is the village in Luxemburg where the agreement creating it was signed.) Valls has suggested delaying their entry, and in one strange remark suggested that France might adopt Schengen rules in airports “for Romanian businessmen” but keep border controls in place along the ground routes that poorer travellers like the Roma would take.
Roma are a group that almost all French, including many immigrants, have agreed to despise. “They are dirty, they steal, they don’t pick up their trash, they don’t respect the law, they don’t assimilate,” a young Malian immigrant told me in conversation yesterday.
One of the reasons that the case of Leonarda has stirred up such strong, contradictory emotion is that her story both confuses and confirms the stereotypes. Leonarda was attending school, showing signs of wanting to integrate into French life. At the same time, her father is unemployed and acknowledges having lied to try to get asylum. Leonarda reportedly missed twenty days of school this year and at one point was placed in protective custody because of concerns about her father’s violence. The Dibranis did not live in a hovel but in a form of temporary public housing. (“The scandal here is that the French people have housed and fed this family for four years,” said one right-wing politician, voicing a widely held sentiment.)
Many Roma do live in unspeakable conditions in improvised shantytowns on the periphery of various towns and cities. (A case this week in Greece, of a small blonde girl found in a Roma camp with several other children whose births were unregistered, plays into this picture.) And yet, “the classic stereotype is largely untrue,” Fassin said. “When you go to Roma camps, you find people trying to clean and you find children trying to go to school.”
But I don’t want to paint in a rosy picture of these camps,” he continued. “The conditions are terrible. There is garbage and there are rats. But let’s talk about the policies that have created these conditions. Many municipal councils don’t want them to have running water, don’t want to put in temporary toilets, and make it very difficult or impossible for the children to attend school. So we have helped create this situation.”
It would not be very difficult, Fassin said, to integrate fifteen thousand Roma if there were the political will to do so. But that is unlikely.
“The problem is not the Roma,” Fassin said. “The problem is that we have countries like Romania and Bulgaria that are very poor. Twenty years ago, we had poor countries in Europe like Portugal, East Germany, and Poland, and a lot of money was spent in making them much richer. But now there is no money or political will to do that. And it is easier to talk about the Roma.”
Photograph by Agron Beqiri/Demotix/Corbis.
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