The girls were ready to leave for London on Eurostar when French police arrived at the school gate to take them into care and their parents into custody. It is doubtful the cousins, both six, had been told why they were crossing the Channel. But activists campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM) told the Guardian they had learned that the parents were planning to have them "cut", and tipped off the police just in time.

"We had to stop them going," said Isabelle Gillette-Faye of the Gams movement. "We were alerted by a family friend who knew what the parents were planning and was against mutilation. But we didn't have much time. We heard about it on the Thursday and they were travelling on Saturday morning. It was a close thing."

The story demonstrates France's zero-tolerance towards FGM, a tough approach that has jailed about 100 people in dozens of high-profile cases.

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