“Contrary to popular myth, it is untrue that we need the talents and skills that immigrants possess.” — Claude Guéant, French Minister of the Interior, May 2011
Imagine you’re a kid from a small town in Western Ukraine, who arrived in France at the age of 15 with your mother, a scientist with a job offer at a lab in Grenoble. You didn’t speak a word of French when you set foot in the alpine city, but a little over two years later, your French is perfect and unaccented, and you pass your baccalauréat with flying colours. You go on to study at Sciences Po Paris, one of the country’s top universities, from which you graduate with a Master’s in Finance. After an internship at a management consultancy in Paris, you get a job offer from one of France’s leading consulting firms. Almost ten years after your arrival, you’re not only perfectly integrated into French society – you’re also about to embark on a brilliant career.
Your work permit application should be a formality, you say to yourself. But under the radar, France’s tough-talking interior minister, Claude Guéant, has published a ministerial circular (we’ll get to that later) that gives immigration officials the goal of reducing work permits by 50%, and essentially shuts the door to non-European job applicants in a wide range of sectors. Your application begins to drag on. One month passes, followed by another, and another, and soon it’s four months and you’re reading article after article about qualified non-EU applicants getting turned down by the authorities and having to leave the country. You begin to panic, but keep telling yourself that it won’t happen to you. Then the letter arrives: “Your application for a work permit has been rejected, and you are forbidden from working in France.”
Meet Anna Garmash. Soon to turn 25, Anna is a bubbly, witty girl with piercing blue eyes and chestnut hair, hailing from Novovolynsk, a small mining town just 10 kilometres from the Polish border – not that you’d know it from her perfect, unaccented French peppered with Gallic cultural references. Smart, highly qualified and multilingual (aside from her native Ukrainian and Russian, she also speaks perfect French, German and English), Anna is a poster child for how immigration can and should work in the best of circumstances. Yet following recent restrictions on economic migration to France, she may soon have to leave, perhaps never to return, after being told that she is no longer needed or wanted.
In a recent interview with i>TELE, Anna explained her astonishment and dismay. “When I learnt I’d been turned down, I was really devastated. I don’t come from a particularly well-off family – France has spent a considerable amount of money on my education, and I’ve been waiting for the day when I could repay her by paying taxes. But instead, I’ve been reminded that I’m a foreigner and don’t have the right to stay.”
How did this all begin? To understand how France turned its back on foreign graduates, we need to go back to 2007, and the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France. A former interior minister under Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy was elected in no small part on his promises to get tough on crime and immigration – indeed, he was the first heads of state to create a separate ministry devoted to managing migration, headed up by political ally Brice Hortefeux and subsequently former socialist member of parliament Eric Besson. While this project was eventually abandoned, Sarkozy decided in a minor February 2011 government reshuffle to hand the portfolio to his tough-talking chief of staff Guéant, formerly director of the National Police who was named interior minister and almost immediately set out a goal to reduce the number of residency and work permits given out every year.
In a May 2011 interview with Europe 1, Guéant told journalists that he believed France had little need for economic migration, and that only around 2000 non-European immigrants every year had the necessary skills to merit work permits. This set the tone on the issue for the last year of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first presidential term. With elections set for May 2012 and Sarkozy polling far behind his socialist rival François Hollande, many on the political right believed that the only way to shore up support for the incumbent was to mobilise the hard right base by appealing to voters who might otherwise vote for the National Front‘s Marine Le Pen.
Just a few days after Guéant’s interview with Europe1, the man often referred to as “the unofficial vice-president” and “the cardinal” seized an opportunity to sow the seeds for the most drastic anti-immigration measures that France had seen for decades. The now-infamous “circulaire Guéant” (a “circulaire” or “circular” being a ministerial recommendation on rules of application) called for prefectures to reduce the number of work visas offered to non-EU graduates of French schools and universities. Concretely, it stated explicitly that foreign students’ primary goal was to “return to their country of origin after graduation” and set out a wide range of ways that civil servants could achieve their goal of rejecting 50% of all work permit applications. This circular was shortly followed by another related text that limited to 14 the number of professions open to foreign graduates – including accounting, woodworking and telemarketing, but not management consulting, banking, marketing, public relations or any number of other qualified posts.
The circular was designed to have the maximum impact with the minimum visibility: signed in May, several months before the end of the academic year, young graduates with job offers only began noticing delays and surprising numbers of rejections in August and September. But from then on, the results were swift and alarming. Graduates of France’s top engineering, business and social science schools with solid job offers from leading French and international firms were increasingly being told that they no longer had the right to stay in France after graduation.
Nabil Sebti is a prime example. A 25-year-old Moroccan graduate of France’s top business school, HEC, Nabil created two companies as a student, and after graduation assumed that as a job creator and young entrepreneur and a highly qualified product of the French educational system, his application for a work visa would be quick and easy. He was wrong. Turned down by the French authorities, he decided to liquidate his two companies and leave the country.
And it isn’t just North African graduates who are paying the price. An October piece in Le Point shows just how ubiquitous and indiscriminate the new restrictions on immigration are – Anna, an American graduate of EDHEC (another élite French business school), was offered a top job in marketing at Swarovski, using her fluent Russian and English to help the company develop new markets in Eastern Europe. Her work permit application was turned down, and she was given 30 days to leave the country.
According to i>TELE, eight to ten thousand foreign graduates are in a similar situation. And despite ongoing protests by foreign students - and, indeed, criticism from within the government, including former higher education minister and now budget chief Valérie Pécresse, who pointed out that the new restrictions hurt the standing of French universities abroad – Claude Guéant looks unlikely to amend or soften his circular between now and the election. And as Nicolas Sarkozy’s most trusted advisor, it looks unlikely that he will be ordered to do so.
Yet business leaders and university heads all agree with student protesters that the circular is a monumental folly. As a recent editorial in Le Monde pointed out, the text has been decried by Pierre Tapie, head of the association of France’s élite graduate schools, the Conférence des grandes écoles, who expressed worry at the impact on the attractiveness of France and its universities. It has been criticised by the French association of private companies, which expressed its incomprehension at France’s decision to deprive itself of the talented youths it has educated, and who could be precious assets in a tough economic climate. And socialist senators have introduced a resolution calling on the government to abolish the circular.
But in a tough electoral climate, few believe that the government will go back on its decision. France is, of course, not alone in this. Britain’s much-praised Post Study Work Visa, which gives graduates of British universities the right to live and work in the UK for two years, is to be abolished in April 2012. The USA is certainly not known for its friendly treatment of foreign graduates. And across Europe, the economic downturn has fuelled electoral successes for countless anti-immigration parties, from the Netherlands to Finland.
Still, for a country that prides itself on a history of tolerance and openness, France’s new restrictions on immigration are scandalous and shameful. There’s the obvious economic argument that France is investing in the education of the best and brightest and should be overjoyed that so many want to stay instead of heading to the City of London where they can earn astronomical salaries. There’s the fact that France’s élite graduate schools and universities will be extremely hard hit by Guéant’s circular – since who would come to study at a French university with no possibility of being able to stay on and work after graduation? But above all, France is telling brilliant young foreign graduates – who could be such fine ambassadors for the country in the years to come – that their kind is no longer welcome. That lesson is not one that they will easily forget. And for a nation which has benefited so greatly from its immigrants – from Marie Curie to Edouard Balladur – the damage to France’s moral leadership and standing in the world, not to mention its competitiveness in a global economy, could be irreparable.