Last updated: October 21, 2013 5:48 pm

François Hollande’s authority dealt blow by Leonarda decision

Leonarda Dibrani, the 15 year-old Roma s©AFP

The unlikely figure of a 15-year-old Roma girl called Leonarda Dibrani with a bad record of school attendance has succeeded in delivering a crippling blow to the authority of François Hollande.

The French president’s attempt to defuse a situation that had become a cause célèbre among supporters of his socialist government has instead been condemned on all sides as a classic Hollandaise compromise that betrays his weakness.

With his popularity plumbing record lows – the latest poll on Sunday gave him an approval rating of 23 per cent – Mr Hollande was hoping that an upturn in the economy would start to dispel doubts about the robustness of his modest reform programme and his ability to turn around double-digit unemployment.

But his handling of the Leonarda case has placed his leadership abilities into question to a degree not seen since he took office after defeating Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election 16 months ago.

“More than ever, the problem confronting François Hollande is one of authority,” wrote the left-leaning newspaper Le Monde. “It is a quality that the French have always had difficulty recognising in him.”

What undid Mr Hollande was his offer on Saturday to Ms Dibrani to return to France by herself from Kosovo, where she had been deported with the rest of her family.

It was an attempt to steer a course between standing by the deportation decision – as demanded by Manuel Valls, his popular interior minister – and ceding to growing clamour on the left for the whole family’s return in acknowledgment of Ms Dibrani’s clumsy detention while on a school trip. But it backfired.

“Hollande had the choice between two bad solutions and he heroically succeeded in finding a third, even worse,” tweeted Francois-Xavier Bourmaud, a political journalist at Le Figaro.

On the right, there was fury that Mr Hollande had made the concession despite an official inquiry finding the decision to expel the Dibranis was wholly within the law.

The inquiry, which noted Ms Dibrani had missed more than 20 days of school this academic year alone, said the family had made little effort to integrate into French society since entering the country illegally in 2009.

Mr Hollande was also criticised for transforming the case into a presidential issue, making a special television appearance to announce his decision. The spectacle of Ms Dibrani denouncing him as heartless moments later on live pictures beamed in from Kosovo hardly added to his presidential aura.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front (FN), which scents it will be the main beneficiary of Mr Hollande’s unpopularity in next year’s local and European elections, said: “We have really seen the weakness of this person, under pressure from a few leftist students.”

Just as worrying for Mr Hollande, though, was the reaction within his own ranks. The first secretary of the Socialist party, socialist members of parliament and leading figures in the Green party, which has two ministers in government, publicly disagreed with his decision, mainly on the grounds it was “inhuman” to make Ms Dibrani choose between her studies and her family.

Mr Hollande’s action over Ms Dibrani was characteristic of his conduct of the economy since taking power. On issues such as public spending, labour market and pension reform, he has trodden cautiously, avoiding the radical action pressed on him by business and his EU partners in a bid to keep the left on board.

He is banking on a turn in the cycle to help lift the economy, while relying on the popularity of Mr Valls, who has taken a tough line on crime and illegal immigration, to fend off the advances of the FN.

The past few days have not been a free ride for the FN, which saw its mask slip over the weekend. It was forced to fire one of its mayoral candidates who posted pictures on Facebook comparing Christiane Taubira, the black minister for justice, to a monkey.

In this poisonous atmosphere, Mr Hollande’s supporters insist it is important to keep a longer perspective. A veteran corporate leader said last week: “The polls now don’t mean anything. The fate of Hollande’s [five-year] presidency will be determined by the level of unemployment in three years’ time.”

Mr Hollande must hope that there is more wisdom in that statement than in his “judgment of Solomon” on Ms Dibrani.

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