Thousands of students occupied their schools and colleges and marched through the streets of France last week, outraged at the deportation of two teenage students.
Khatchik Khachatryan, 19, said he was forced onto a plane to Armenia, bound and gagged. His parents had fled the country for political reasons.
And 15 year old Roma student Leonarda Dibrani was arrested on the school bus in front of all her classmates.
She was deported with her family to Kosovo. Leonarda has never been to Kosovo, doesn’t knows anyone there and can’t speak the language.
The protests began on Thursday in dozens of colleges and schools, with 7,000 on a march in Paris. Occupations continued on Friday and into this week.
“Return Khatchik and Leonarda—their place is here,” chanted students at the Lycee Charlemagne.
“We want all students, with or without legal papers, to be able to stay in France with their families,” said Ivan Dementhon of the college students’ union Unil.
“It’s unacceptable to expel people whose life is in France,” said college student Yan. “Khatchik and Leonarda were the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Emma, 15, added, “How can students feel safe in these conditions?” She said several of her teachers had joined the march.
Unef, the university students’ union, has called a national demonstration for 5 November. It demands the return of Leonarda and Khatchik and a ban on deporting school students.
More than 10,000 Roma people have been evicted from camps in France in the first half of this year.
Right wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy began the policy. But the Socialist Party-led government of president Francois Hollande has continued it.
As Hollande’s popularity plummeted, interior minister Manuel Valls has consistently played to the racist agenda set by the right.
Last month Valls said Roma people had a “way of life” that was “in confrontation” with the French population. Protesters are calling for him to resign.
But the expulsion of Leonarda has provoked outrage even within the government.
Education minister Vincent Peillon said it was wrong to intervene in school time, because “schools are a sort of sanctuary”.
Hollande himself was forced to intervene, with an insulting offer to allow Leonarda back into France if she left her parents in Kosovo. This was immediately rejected—first by Leonarda herself and then by Socialist Party leader Harlem Desir.
Opinion polls have lurched to the right in France in recent years. The fascist Front National looks likely to top the polls at next year’s European elections.
But the students’ protests show that it is possible to challenge the French government’s racist agenda.