Claude Guéant’s monstrosity, or why foreign graduates are no longer welcome in France

“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.

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16 thoughts on “Claude Guéant’s monstrosity, or why foreign graduates are no longer welcome in France

  1. Sir,
    A tip of my hat for this piece ! I do hope that this unreasonable situation will tend to an end. Media pressure has to continue or this case will be burried under the covering of the upcoming presidential election…

      1. Thanks – I’ve been posting links about the circular for weeks, and finally decided I needed to write something myself to express just how angry this all makes me feel, and how awful it is.

  2. Now the focus, with apparent legislative measures, is on non-EU students. Yet when I studied in France, and already after the Polish accession to the EU, the discourse was the same towards new member states citizens: get education, and then go away. Either way, good piece Evan.

    1. Indeed. And it was the case for Romanians and Bulgarians a few years further down the line. I don’t necessarily think that that attitude has changed, either – it’s simply that it’s no longer legally possible to kick out Polish or Hungarian graduates after they finish their studies.

      Anyway, thanks!

  3. I went to a top b school in France and worked shortly after that. This mentality is not only to get the job but once you’re working in a French environment, you immediately feel the superiority (or inferiority) complex they have. French are trapped in a time zone; they still think they live in the XVII century. They cannot embrace modernity because it’s “wrong”.
    It happens exactly the same with embracing multiculturalism, they are so stuck in the past that they think foreigners will take over. What they are really doing is isolating themselves even further. They are victims of their own retrograde mentality.
    This is something very deeply ingrained in them and what is really worse, they are proud of it.
    This is the final episode of their decadence sentence. They have all not to, but it’s just a decision they have taken. This minister is the perfect ambassador of these thoughts

  4. Hi,

    i just wanted to thank you for this clear, concise article. I have nothing to add about all this, except that I’m deeply ashamed by this, and angry. Not only do they jeopardize all the efforts made these last ten years by top schools in france to adapt (finally!) to globalization, but it does hurt the image of France and I could not blame any foreigner who had to leave the country because of the circulaire if he told me that he does not want to come back or would advise someone else not to come. I have a lot of concerns about my many non-EU resident friends who study at sciences-po, or polytechnique, without mentioning HEC, who after all these years won’t be able to find a job in the country they learned to love.
    I feel angry and so sorry for all who are in this situation. France needs them, more than ever now.

    Thanks again for the article. I hope this will not last.

    1. I couldn’t agree more: this is a tragedy for the students and an embarrassment for France – and it’ll have a lasting impact on the country’s economic dynamism and standing in the world.

      Thanks for your kind words about the article, by the way!

  5. Hi Evan,
    Fantastic article! I was looking for a piece that could clearly explain what this circular was all about and this one did the job perfectly!!

    As a foreign student currently studying in HEC, I am deeply disappointed and hurt by this measure. I can understand the country tightening up on immigration but such an extreme ruling that makes it effectively impossible to find a job in the country is rather disappointing. I will have raked up a loan of over €50,000 from my study here and now face the brilliant prospect of being jobless after graduation!

    Needless to say, I have begun looking for employment in other countries (I am actually considering leaving my final year at HEC, maybe I can do a double degree/exchange program instead) and would never recommend France to anyone from a non-EU country because without the prospect of a job after graduation, it simply does not make sense. I believe that French schools were taking big steps in the right direction and becoming more ‘international’ but this circular will only serve to send them back to square one!

    Once again, thank you for this article and keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks! I just felt like so much was being said by others that I had to put it all in one place and try to make sense of it all. Plus, while my French friends knew what was going on, I felt that writing something in English would be more universal and carry a lot further.

      I know several close friends who would never have come to Sciences Po/HEC/Polytechnique had this circular been in place. And I’m sorry that you’re regretting your decision to go to HEC. I would suggest sticking with it in the hope that things change after the elections in May, but also looking at double degrees or Master’s degrees in the UK or elsewhere for after graduation, to give yourself the best possible chances of getting the best possible job afterwards.

      You should know, however, that Britain is getting rid of its Post-Study Work Visa scheme next year, so it’ll be just as tough to get a job in London soon… just FYI.

      Anyway, best of luck, and hope things work out for you… and thanks for your kind words!

  6. Please stop always blaming France! You quote the countries where the same thing happen, USA, UK, other Europe countries, Australia etc.
    So now that France realizes facing the economic crisis and the high rate of unemployement, she needs to change his very very very liberal system it is “scandalous and shameful”?!

    There is no job. Nowhere. Even for French graduates. I studied 4years in the US amd after that I was told that I had to leave the country. Do I say that Barack Obama is racist or that is politic is shameful? No. I understand.
    And if I decide to settle or in
    Poland or Marocco tomorrow, will I find a job? No. Because I am not Maroccan or Polish. Do people there think it’s normal? Yes.

    French government do what he can to help France survive the crisis.
    Yes France has always been very liberal but look at the context! We can’t keep acting the same unaware of what is going in Europe! In In a perfect world, things would remain the same but you can’t blame France for trying to survive the crisis by doing that more and more countries around the world have done.

    1. “[A]lways blaming France”? I lived and studied there, and many of my friends are directly affected by this. Yes, the US (my country of birth) deserves a separate post for its own extremely restrictive immigration policies. But as someone who’s spent most of his life in Europe, and who’s a graduate of a French university, I feel directly affected by this.

      This is horrible, horrible policy. We’re talking about what’s essentially a small group of highly qualified young graduates willing to stay in France (instead of heading off to investment banks in London) and contribute to French society and France’s economy by paying taxes. In fact, even les Echos, which I don’t think anyone would argue is a left-wing paper, underlined just how economically insane this policy is: http://www.lesechos.fr/entreprises-secteurs/enquete/0201761026733-diplomes-etrangers-cette-circulaire-qui-ne-passe-pas-258193.php

      Look, just because other countries are doing the same doesn’t make this right. This is economic nonsense, it won’t help France’s job market, and it’s a tragedy on a personal level. Read the countless accounts of people in the country for years who have to leave because of this circular. They’re all people whom France should be proud to have, models of integration, who can and should contribute immensely to France’s economy, culture and society. They’re multilingual, international, highly-educated individuals who have skills that aren’t otherwise available on the French job market.

      Look, certain countries are restricting their immigration policies – and paying the price in terms of losing highly-qualified graduates. Germany, on the other hand, is welcoming such graduates with open arms… you tell me which country will benefit more.

      I’m sorry for your treatment at the hands of my country’s authorities. Really, I am. American immigration policy is an embarrassment, at least when it comes to young graduates. But that doesn’t justify doing the same in France…

    2. By the way, without giving away any private info, I notice your IP address is Australian. If you’re going to hold Australia up as an example of a country with tough immigration laws (which it is) then don’t pick the country I assume you live and work in… I don’t think many Australian students would be able to stay in France after graduation…

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