PARIS - French President Francois Hollande has been attacked from all sides for offering a deported Roma schoolgirl the chance to return to France without her family, ceding ever more ground to his ambitious Interior Minister Manuel Valls.
Hollande's offer to let Leonarda Dibrani, 15, come back to the country - which she declined, saying she would not leave behind her parents and five siblings in Kosovo - has been met with incomprehension and vitriol, leaving the president accused of misusing his position and acting "emotionally".
French media on Sunday let rip at Hollande, with the website of the left-wing Liberation newspaper describing the move as "the most improbable of all scenarios", and the weekly Journal du Dimanche calling it "as bizarre as it is incomprehensible".
Politician Francois Bayrou, a centrist heavyweight who backed Hollande in the second round of presidential elections in 2012, weighed in to say a head of state "should not confuse emotion and the duty of government."
The Roma teenager immediately turned down Hollande's offer from the town of Mitrovica in Kosovo, where she has been living with her family since their October 9 deportation.
"I'm not the only one who has to go to school, there are also my brothers and sisters," she said.
The family were assaulted on Sunday in what local authorities described as a private dispute with another family that was unrelated to their deportation from France.
The girl's mother was briefly hospitalised and released as her injuries were not serious, police said, adding that four people have been detained.
Leonarda's arrest by French police during a school trip and the subsequent deportation of her family has aroused soul-searching by France's left and brought thousands of high-school students to the streets in protest.
The results of a formal investigation published Saturday found that the deportation was lawful but that police could have used better judgement in the way they handled it.
However, the case was further complicated by revelations that Leonarda's father had lied about his family's origins to have a better chance at obtaining asylum.
Support for Valls
As an advocate of the rigorous enforcement of immigration laws, Socialist Interior Minister Valls was put in a difficult position when his boss made the grand gesture.
Initially praising an "act of generosity" in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Valls went on to say that the family's deportation was justified by seven prior asylum rejections and the "fraudulent documents" they provided in support. But in a deft manoeuvre seemingly designed to distance himself from the president, Valls said "emotion cannot be the guide (in deciding) a policy."
He then paid tribute to France as a "land of immigration", but nonetheless stressed the need to "control the flow" of foreigners entering the country.
"Foreigners, even families, even those with school-age children, as soon as they no longer have the right to remain, must leave the country," he said, countering this hard line once again by arguing France must fight to protect the asylum system "to the last breath".
Last month, Spanish-born Valls triggered an outcry when he said most of the 20,000 Roma in France had no intention of integrating and should be sent back to their countries of origin.
But a survey by polling firm BVA published on Saturday in the Le Parisien daily showed that 74 per cent of the French approved Valls's position on the Dibrani controversy.
Hollande's own approval ratings are dismal, slumping to a new low of just 23 per cent, according to a poll published Sunday in the JDD.
"We are in a period where public opinion is supportive of the forces of law and order, of discipline," political commentator Roland Cayrol told AFP.
Hollande was also accused of "cartoonish indecisiveness" by Francois Fillon, former prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy and a pre-eminent figure in the centre-right UMP party - not the first time the accusation has been levelled at the Socialist president.
According to commentator Jerome Fourquet, Hollande's behaviour remains in keeping with his diplomatic style when he was head of the Socialist Party, during which he was "the man who brought together different factions."
But for many, the president's quest for balance comes at the risk of shrinking from difficult choices, just months ahead of municipal and European elections set to be overshadowed by the recent surge of the far-right National Front.