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.”