Calais // The last stop in northern France before the short crossing to England, above or beneath water, has a troubled recent history of coping with the seemingly unstoppable flow of illegal immigrants.
Afghans, Somalis, Iraqis and growing numbers of Syrians have taken to abandoned buildings, a woodland encampment and other makeshift shelter while trying to reach Britain and gain asylum.
France, in common with other European countries, is struggling to find a coherent answer to the problem of people from conflict-stricken or impoverished lands moving from one continent to another in search of safer or better lives.
This month’s appalling loss of life of Somali, Eritrean and Syrian immigrants, their overcrowded boats sinking in the Mediterranean, bears witness to the desperate lengths to which many go to join the exodus. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has estimated that more than 30,000 migrants have completed the crossings to Malta and Italy this year.
But it is the case of a 15-year-old Kosovar girl, who wants to make her life in France, which has dominated French airwaves and newspapers in the past week, providing a new focus for discussions about illegal immigration.
And after Leonarda Dibrani was taken by border police from a school trip before the eyes of a shocked teacher and classmates, and then expelled with her mother and five siblings, the French president François Hollande’s answer to the resulting furore has turned scandal into bleak farce. To the dismay and even disbelief of many, he publicly invited her to return to France to continue her education but without her family.
Sections of the French media have suggested that he reduced an already embarrassing episode to fiasco. The anti-Hollande conservative daily Le Figaro made grim allusion to the tragedies at sea, describing his intervention as a “shipwreck”.
Leonarda, now in the Kosovo city of Mitrovica, told Reuters she would not return alone and accused Mr Hollande of “having no heart”.
The French left, including some ministers from Mr Hollande’s ruling socialist government, have condemned Leonarda’s expulsion. Even the administration’s Moroccan-born official spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, acknowledged the circumstances were “shocking”.
The education minister, Vincent Peillon, said educational institutions should be inviolable, pupils blockaded schools – also citing the recent case of an Armenian boy’s expulsion – and some left-wing and green politicians referred to Leonarda as the victim of a “rafle”, an emotive term recalling the roundups of Jews under Nazi occupation.
Leonarda was removed from a school bus on October 9 as she was about to go on a class outing the day after her father had been detained elsewhere in France and deported. Police realised she was missing when they arrived at the reception centre where the family was living in Levier, eastern France.
The teacher accompanying the children was contacted and ordered to stop the bus, which she did with reluctance. A local socialist politician suggested in vain that he should take her back to rejoin her family. The left-of-centre Libération newspaper quoted the teacher as saying she badgered officers into parking away from the vehicle to avoid the tearful Leonarda being seen getting into their vehicle “humiliated in front of her friends”. Several commentators have noted the excellent French spoken by Leonarda and her apparently successful immersion in school life, at odds with the stereotype of immigrants failing to integrate.
However, with the far right, anti-immigration Front National (FN) posing an increasing threat to the mainstream “republican” parties, Mr Hollande is anxious not to antagonise an electorate disillusioned with his presidency and hostile to the influx of foreigners.
His hardline interior minister Manuel Valls, though himself born in Spain, has adopted a heavy-handed immigration policy, suggesting that most Roma, moving from one encampment to another in France, lived lives “extremely different from and clearly in conflict with” those of the French and should return to Romania or Bulgaria.
Mr Valls claims no error was committed by the authorities in Leonarda’s case. He told the Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, the family’s request for asylum had been rejected at all seven stages of its process since their arrival in France in 2009.
While presenting himself as conscious of the “situation of this young girl”, he said emotion was not the only factor to influence policy. He made limited admission that police showed a “lack of discretion” but otherwise insisted that the law had had been correctly applied, adding: “The president’s gesture is an act of generosity towards Leonarda, but her family are not coming back.”
Few doubt that illegal immigration is a headache for countries to which frightened or suffering people wish to migrate.
But the Leonarda affair has left many moderate observers of French politics wondering what, if this is how a socialist government could act, might be expected from an administration in which the buoyant FN had a say.
They already have an answer of sorts.
When the FN leader, Marine Le Pen, deplored Mr Hollande’s offer to the girl as “grotesque and dangerous”, she was not siding with Leonarda. She was complaining that this was a signal, “showing weakness and encouragement to clandestine immigration”, that would be heard and understood the world over.