PARIS President Francois Hollande was widely criticised on Sunday for offering to allow a deported immigrant teenager back into France without her family, and a poll showed his approval ratings at a record low.
Hollande waded into the dispute on Saturday when he offered Leonarda Dibrani, a teenager of Roma origin ordered off a school bus and deported to Kosovo, the chance to return to France to finish her studies, but only if she did so alone.
The proposal drew angry condemnation, including from Dibrani, who said that she would not return alone, exposing Hollande to fresh attacks on his leadership.
"What do 80 percent of the French think about this?" Francois Bayrou, a centrist party leader who ran against Hollande in round one of the 2012 presidential election, told i>Tele.
"They think the state has totally lost its compass, deciding one thing and then deciding its exact opposite one minute later... Hollande's authority is significantly weakened here."
Dibrani's expulsion after her family failed to obtain political asylum has tested Hollande's ability to handle the issue of illegal migration, a source of increasing public frustration in France.
Students protested to demand the 15-year-old schoolgirl be allowed back, even as opinion polls showed that most French wanted the family out.
Opponents from the centre-right UMP party accused Hollande of being so obsessed with satisfying his Socialist base that he had betrayed the will of the public. Even Socialists appeared dissatisfied with the president's attempt at a compromise.
Minutes after Hollande's TV appearance, in which he said police had followed rules but lacked tact in doing so, Socialist Party leader Harlem Desir appeared on a different channel saying Dibrani's family should be let back into France.
"I am going to talk to the president and the government about this," said Desir. He added that he wanted "all the children of Leonarda's family to be able to finish their studies in France, accompanied by their mother."
VALLS EMERGES A WINNER
A poll in the JDD weekly newspaper showed Hollande's approval rating had sunk to 23 percent, the lowest level in his presidency and beating record low popularity ratings set by his centre-right predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.
But while Hollande wilts under grim economic data and attacks on his authority, his tough-talking Interior Minister Manuel Valls has become France's most popular minister.
A JDD poll published this month showed Valls had the support of 61 percent of the French, far ahead of any other minister. By emphasising a tough stance on Dibrani's family, rather than the offer to allow her back, he appears to have come out of the Dibrani affair unscathed.
"Nothing will make me deviate from my path," Valls told the JDD in an interview published on Sunday. "The law must be applied and this family must not come back to France."
Valls has toughened his rhetoric against illegal migration and makeshift Roma camps as the far-right National Front party has surged in popularity ahead of municipal and European elections next year.
Dibrani, who was born in Italy, and her five brothers and sisters attended school in France, where they arrived in 2009. But an official report showed their attendance record was patchy and said the family's attempts to assimilate were disappointing.
Repeated requests for asylum by her father, Reshat, who is from Kosovo, were undermined by the fact that he lied about their nationality.
French-speaking Leonarda, speaking from a house in the Kosovo city of Mitrovica, criticised Hollande as "having no heart", and said her family would return to France anyway.
(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur; editing by Mike Collett-White)