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Expelled girl 'can return alone'

Under fire from the far left and members of his own party, Socialist president Francois Hollande said today that a 15-year-old girl who was detained in front of her classmates and expelled can return to France. But the rest of the family cannot come with her.

She said she would not return without her family.

The deportation of the Dibrani family, whose requests for asylum were rejected, has lit a firestorm in France, where such expulsions aren't rare but are always sensitive as the birthplace of the "rights of man" grapples with a flux of immigrants.

It's an especially delicate issue for Hollande and the Socialists, who have tried to present a softer image of France's immigration policies and distance themselves from former president Nicolas Sarkozy's tough stance.

The uproar began earlier this week when it became public that 15-year-old Leonarda was detained by police as she got off a bus from a school trip. Schools are considered places of sanctuary, and many thought that principle had been breached.

The story has since become more complicated, with the father admitting that he lied in his asylum application when he said the entire family fled Kosovo, where they were persecuted for being Roma, or gypsies. Leonarda, and most of her siblings, were born in Italy, though they do not have Italian citizenship.

A government report published today found that the police followed the law, although the report said they didn't seem to realise the sensitivity of what they were doing.

But apparently fearing that conclusion wouldn't put the issue to rest, Hollande went on national television today to walk the line between maintaining a tough stance on illegal immigrants and showing compassion for the girl caught up in the storm.

He said Leonarda, considering the circumstances of her detention, could come back to France to go to school, if she wishes. But only she can come back. In Mitrovica, Kosovo, where the family is now living, Leonarda told reporters she would not come back without her family. Her father threatened to return to France, even if it was illegal.

"Mr Hollande has no heart for my family? He has no pity?" Leonarda asked, in an emotional scene in front of cameras.

She had earlier said that she was deeply ashamed when the police took her away in front of her classmates.

Hollande also said local authorities would be told that, from now on, no such detentions can happen while children are in the care of their schools, whether inside the building, at the exit, on a bus or in after-school activities.

Although polls show that the majority of French people don't think the family should be allowed to return to France, the case has threatened to destabilise the Hollande government.

Thousands of teenagers rallied in central Paris on Friday after shutting down their high schools the day before to protest against expulsions like Leonarda's.

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