French Police Roust Five-Year Old For Unpaid School Lunch Bill

A series of bad choices lead to French police removing a child from a school lunchroom for her parents' late payments--a provoke a nationwide stomach ache.

  • Share
  • Read Later

The French take their food seriously, but this is clearly overdoing things.

Police in the Basque town of Ustaritz removed a five-year old girl from her school cafeteria after her parents had failed to settle $220 in outstanding fees to the lunch program. Since news of the police rousting of a hungry tot hit France’s national press Jan. 10, the resulting public, media, and government outcry has been enough to give Ustaritz officials lifetime indigestion.

(MORE: Will World Heritage Status Be Good for French Food?)

“All children in France should be eating in their cafeteria, and not be victims of acts which, of this nature, are acts of violence,” protested French Education Minister Vincent Peillon, one of several officials who described themselves as “shocked” by the police intervention. Dominique Baudis, the head of France’s human rights watchdog, said an official investigation has been opened “to identify the successive dysfunctions that led to this situation”.

That may be one thick report. According to regional newspaper Sud Ouest’s first report on the tale, the child, named Léa, was ushered out of the cafeteria by a uniformed police officer, past her gaping classmates. Léa’s father said his daughter feared being fetched by a cop could only mean one of her parents had died. Fellow students, meantime, reportedly assumed their peer was being hauled off to jail for some unimaginable offense, and were astounded when she returned to class a little later. (In the meantime, Ustaritz’s finest had taken Léa home for lunch, and—finding nobody there—back to the police station, where they gave her something to eat.)

Despite that show of heart, angry French officials, pundits and the general public have demanded answers as to why the police were ordered to play lunchroom monitor in the first place. Ustaritz mayor Dominique Lesbats told the media that the “terrible misunderstanding” arose after authorities alerted Léa’s mother the child would have to be taken home for lunch until the cafeteria debt was settled. When no one appeared to pick her up at noon Jan. 8, cafeteria employees decided to allow the child into the facility so she wouldn’t be stranded outdoors—but then felt bad about the kid having to stand apart as her peers chowed down. It was that time a call was made to the local police to come escort the girl home.

Léa’s father remains infuriated that the child was “frog-marched out of the cafeteria” in a manner that had both his daughter and her classmates jumping to dire conclusions. He also says he’s paid part of the lunch arrears and will reimburse the rest soon—but that money isn’t the point. Others agree.

“You don’t take children hostage this way,” Laurent Aguergaray, director of Léa’s Saint Vincent school, told  Agence France-Presse. “This is action was irresponsible.”

So who came away from the controversy unscathed? The police officer instructed to remove the child from the cafeteria. No one disputes that she had no option but to follow orders once they were given, however objectionable. Meantime, superiors have congratulated her for not forgetting the most important thing as the drama unfolded: making sure Léa got some lunch.

(MORE: Watch: Battling Basque Father Joins Son’s Fight in Pro Rugby Match)