The French election may save Europe but hurt Ireland

Article originally published in The Times. Link here.

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RIP Richard Descoings (1958-2012)

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“Descoings was a great public servant who dedicated his entire life to the cause he’d chosen: education.. He was a pioneer in opening up internationally and in seeking new financing, a tireless and passionate worker.” — Nicolas Sarkozy

Enough has perhaps already been said about the death of Richard Descoings, but as a recent (2010) Sciences Po graduate, I wanted to weigh in on the passing of a man who profoundly transformed my alma mater and contributed so much to changing how education and social mobility is seen in France.

Descoings was, as Le Monde so aptly put it, a “revolutionary in a frozen educational world”. A graduate of both Sciences Po and France’s National School of Administration (ENA), Descoings – “Ritchie” to his students and friends – was a career civil servant and former adviser to then-Education Minister Jack Lang before taking over as Director of Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies, France’s most prestigious school of social studies and the alma mater of countless government ministers and several presidents) in 1996.

Seen as a safe choice, a product of France’s political and civil service elite, Descoings did not take long to profoundly shake things up at what was once a rather staid establishment. Labelled an “iconoclast” by Le Point, he grew the school from 4000 to 10000, increased the percentage of foreign students from near nothing to 40%, opened satellite undergraduate campuses in provincial French cities, and, most importantly, reformed the admissions system to open up a new track for poor youths from disadvantaged backgrounds – a move that attracted much criticism at the time as “American-style affirmative action” but which has produced impressive results.

In addition, he also grew the stature of the university abroad. Signing countless partnership agreements with foreign universities and setting up a vast range of double degree programmes, he turned what was once an extremely inward-facing “Franco-French” establishment into one of the few French universities to be consistently ranked among the world’s best.

He also made somewhat more questionable choices – notably increasing fees dramatically (though also substantially growing scholarship programmes for poorer families), and increasing bonuses for senior management. Yet despite this, he was loved by his students – a father figure, a friend, constantly interacting with the Sciences Po community in the halls of the institution and online. He was also a close advisor to countless ministers and government officials on the left and the right, moving the national discussion on education from one stuck in old dogmas to a gradual realisation that more needs to be done for youths from poor and immigrant backgrounds, and that results at school are not the only measurement of intelligence and ability. Indeed, one only needs to look at the tributes pouring in from politicians and public figures from across the political spectrum – from Nicolas Sarkozy and Alain Juppé on the right to François Hollande on the left, as well as figures like Ban Ki-Moon abroad – to see just how much of an impact he has had on education and beyond both in France and overseas.

He remains an inspiration even after his passing, and he will be sorely, sorely missed within the Sciences Po community and beyond. RIP.

Claude Guéant and France’s continuing slide to the far right under Nicolas Sarkozy

“All civilisations, all practices, all cultures, in light of our republican principles, are not equal.” – Claude Guéant, French Interior Minister, 4 January 2012

Coming from a fervent defender of tolerance, openness, women’s rights, gay rights and the like, there’s nothing wrong with the statement that certain cultural values found in Western society are superior to intolerant views held elsewhere. It’s something I’d certainly agree with – while I’m no Huntingtonite neocon, I’m certainly not a believer in cultural relativism, and do think that European society has it right on most of the key cultural issues that concern people’s daily lives.

Coming from Claude Guéant, however, such a statement is nothing but dogwhistle politics, designed to attract xenophobic support from the far right for the extremely shaky reelection bid of incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It’s not the first example of Guéant’s attempts to play on the hatred of foreigners – and especially Muslims – that festers in the hearts of so many French citizens. Guéant is an expert in such divisive politics – and Nicolas Sarkozy’s right hand man when it comes to law and order, immigration and a whole host of other topics, not to mention his main emissary to the far right electorate.

It was Guéant who said in May 2011 that “Contrary to popular myth, it is untrue that we need the talents and skills that immigrants possess.” It was he, also, who said that same year that France only wanted “nice” immigrants. But above all, he brought in strict new rules on work permits for young foreign graduates – the famous “Guéant circular” about which I’ve written a couple posts – that made it near impossible for non-European students to stay in France after graduation.

As Françoise Fressoz of Le Monde pointed out on her blog today, a new IFOP-Journal du Dimanche poll showed incumbent right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and left-wing challenger François Hollande neck-and-neck at 33% in a hypothetical election where far right candidate Marine Le Pen fails to qualify for the presidential ballot (not at all impossible). What this has reaffirmed for the French right is that the solution to its problems is to continue to appeal to the xenophobes on the right in the hopes of mobilising and galvanising its electorate and beating extremely low expectations in the April/May presidential election.

This is why, says Fressoz:

Guéant has attacked the left for ‘not participating in the vote on banning the wearing of full veils’ and in recounting a left-wing politician’s ‘assurances that ‘street prayers do not bother anyone’…

The offensive is clearly directed against Islam. It has a dual objective: flirting with Le Pen’s electorate while Marine Le Pen is weakened by her uncertain quest to qualify for the ballot [in France, 500 signatures from local elected officials are required to qualify for the presidential election] and destabilising the Socialist Party whose leader, François Hollande, took up the theme of the “Republic” at his 22 January speech at Le Bourget… in Claude Guéant’s eyes, socialists do not know how to defend secularism.

And, says Fressoz, it will only worsen in the coming weeks and months as the presidential race identifies. But more than mere electoral politics, the French centre right has been eclipsed by a more strident, less politically correct ‘new right’ – echoing both Thatcher and Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP no longer cares about political niceties and consensus politics. It’s learnt from its European neighbours that appeals to people’s worst instincts generally pay in politics. That’s why it’d be so nice to see Sarkozy, Guéant and all those around them suffer defeat in May of this year. Cowardly politics that fuels hatred and resentment is the last thing that France needs right now.

The Guéant Circular Part II: the Power of Media Scrutiny

In my last blog post, I mentioned Anna Garmash, a Ukrainian graduate of Sciences Po, a top French university, who despite living in France for the past ten years, and despite receiving a job offer from a leading consulting firm, saw the French authorities turn down her work permit application recently under the strict new Guéant Circular (or circulaire Guéant in the original French). She feared that she might have to leave the country and leave behind her friends, her mother and all of the ties that she had formed in her decade spent in France.

And then something happened. Anna was scheduled to appear on the Grand Journal, a popular current affairs programme on Canal+, facing off against Arno Klarsfeld, the well-known French lawyer now in charge of the French Office of Immigration and Integration. And in the green room before the show, Klarsfeld, obviously well-prepared, announced to Anna that knowing she was going to be on the programme, he looked into her case and unblocked her application, meaning that she would be able to stay, live and work in France. This, just moments before going on.

Obviously, I’m very happy about her particular case, not least because (confession here) Anna is my girlfriend and perhaps my closest friend. However, one thing is clear – this was a media coup, and Klarsfeld admitted it himself. Rather than actually facing up to criticism of his government’s awful reform and its consequences on thousands of foreign graduates, he did what any cynical politician would, and looked for an easy way out.

Two thoughts:

  1. Media scrutiny, media pressure and media attention is crucial. Protesters in the Collectif du 31 Mai, the student group set up to fight the circular, cannot let up. They need to put as many young graduates in similar situations to those of Anna in front of journalists – as soon as possible. The Sarkozy-Fillon government is frightened to death of actually defending its measures on their merits, because there are no merits.
  2. Talking to members of the Collectif, the belief seems to be that the leaders of the student protest movement are set to see their applications be resolved in the coming days. But that doesn’t mean that this will all stop. It just means that the most vocal opponents of Guéant’s circular will be mollified, while hundreds, possibly thousands, of ordinary graduates of less prestigious schools will continue to suffer.

What I would say to anyone in Anna’s situation – and talking to Anna this evening, she’d certainly agree – is that just because your application was resolved and that your own personal  nightmare is over, there’s no reason for you to forget what others like you are going through. It’s too easy to be complacent. Yet the reality is that until this circular is substantially amended – or, better still, withdrawn altogether – thousands of young graduates of French universities, who have spent years learning the language and soaking up the culture, and who wish to give back to France a measure of all that France has given them, will continue to suffer. That’s unacceptable.

In short: I’m overjoyed about Anna, but I’m not going to be any less vocal about this monstrosity. And neither should you. Oh, and while you’re at it, get your face in front of every journalist, write to every newspaper and email every news website you can think of. It can’t hurt.

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.

2002 all over again? Marine Le Pen leads in new French presidential election poll

On the 21st of April 2002, French voters had the shock of their lives when far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Front (FN), beat incumbent socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to qualify for the second round of that year’s presidential election. Though he was resoundingly beaten by centre-right President Jacques Chirac in the run-off, it was the best result ever for a hard right candidate.

French voters thought that the Le Pen threat was on the wane when the FN leader only came in 4th at the 2007 presidential election, behind Nicolas Sarkozy (the right-wing leader who went on to win the election and become president), Ségolène Royal (the socialist candidate) and François Bayrou (a centrist). However, with a change of leadership at the top of the far-right party, Marine Le Pen (who is perceived as being marginally more moderate than her father Jean-Marie) took the reins of the FN, and has seemingly brought the party even closer to power than it was in 2002, as a Harris Interactive poll for Le Parisien set to appear tomorrow shows:

Marine Le Pen (FN) would be in first place in the first round of the presidential election if it were held today, with 23% of the vote, ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy and Martine Aubry [leader of the French Socialist Party and Mayor of Lille], who are tied at 21%, according to a Harris Interactive poll for Le Parisien which will be released on Sunday…

This is the first time in any presidential election poll that the leader of the Front national qualified for the second round. For several weeks now, commentators on the right and on the left are suggesting that France could be headed for a repeat of the 21st of April, 2002, where Lionel Jospin was eliminated in the first round, leaving Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen to face off in the second.

Marine Le Pen has set out to give the FN a make-0ver – but it is, of course, merely a cosmetic change leaving the party’s core values intact. While her father was known as much for denying the Holocaust and diatribes against abortion (which is overwhelmingly popular and a fringe political issue in France, unlike the United States) as he was for his opposition to immigration and his country’s membership of the EU, Le Pen junior focuses on Islam and law and order, copying from the playbook of parties that have had success elsewhere in Europe, such as Geert Wilders‘s Party for Freedom in Holland and Umberto Bossi‘s Lega Nord in Italy. At the same time, thanks to her political base in economically depressed Northern France, she has an ability to relate with working families worried about globalisation and economic liberalism that her father lacked because of his extreme reputation.

Quoting Joseph Stiglitz and David Cameron, Le Pen plays on fears of modernity, free trade and immigration that mainstream politicians have been all-too-willing to talk about themselves, pandering to the far right to win votes. But Marine Le Pen can speak about such subjects with more credibility thanks to her far right background, while appealing to enough moderates to make a serious impact on the French political landscape. While the 2012 election is more than a year away, the new FN leader is seemingly making waves on both the right and the left by both pointing out Nicolas Sarkozy’s failures to live up to his promises to curb immigration and improve security, and playing the left’s game too with a protectionist, anti-big-business line that will speak to workers’ concerns about jobs disappearing overseas while French bankers and businessmen remain as rich as ever.

Marine Le Pen is a major threat to both sides of the political spectrum – and, with several candidacies on the left and the centre-right, one of the two mainstream presidential hopefuls (Sarkozy and his socialist opponent, who will probably be either Aubry or current IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn) could well come up short and find him- or herself excluded from the second round of the 2012 election. And while a Le Pen candidacy would never win a majority of votes in France (or, at least, I would hope not), French voters would once again be confronted with a choice between an unpopular mainstream candidate and an extreme protest candidate, which would not be good for democracy in the long run. Voters are best served when they are able to choose between two competing, coherent visions for the future of their country, rather than simply having to pick between moderation and anger.

Michèle Alliot-Marie, French Foreign Minister: ‘the American security umbrella will not be eternal’

Despite recent controversy over the use of the former Tunisian president’s plane, I continue to be an enormous fan of Michèle Alliot-Marie, foreign minister of France under Nicolas Sarkozy. Alliot-Marie is perhaps best known for her five-year stint as defence minister, the first French woman to ever serve in that position. There, despite her sex, she managed to earn the respect of the military top brass and much of France’s population with her tough, Thatcherite persona; episodes like this one made me love her even then:

…by far the best story about France’s first woman defence minister recounts how she was walking up the steps in front of the National Assembly one day in her impeccably-cut trouser suit when a brave – or possibly stupid – steward raised a gloved hand.”Excuse me, madame,” said the frock-coated steward sternly, “but I am afraid that while parliament is in session, only gentlemen are permitted to wear trousers within the confines of the assembly.” Michele Alliot-Marie turned on him with the terrifying glare that has since earned her the not entirely appropriate nickname of France’s Iron Lady.

“Let me just be sure,” she said very loudly and slowly, “that I have understood you correctly. Do you mean you would like me to take them off?” Collapse of stunned steward; de facto end of discriminatory and outmoded dress code for women in the French parliament.

Since serving as defence minister between 2002 and 2007 under Jacques Chirac, and toying with a gaullist presidential bid against Nicolas Sarkozy in ’07, she has also filled the posts of interior (2007-2009) and justice (2009-2010) minister, before becoming France’s top diplomat in November of last year. From a traditionalist gaullist background, she has nevertheless challenged conventional French wisdom by supporting her country’s re-entry into the NATO military alliance, and was for a time considered a strong candidate for the Secretary-General of that organisation.

While her most recent declaration in favour of increasing Europe’s role in its own defence and reducing the continent’s dependence on the USA was perhaps nothing new, the terms in which she couched such a move couldn’t be better chosen:

The French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Michèle Alliot-Marie, advocated a ‘re-launch’ of the European defence policy on Sunday in Munich, underlining that “The American umbrella cannot be universal or eternal”. Speaking before the 47th Conference on Security Policy about the economic crisis which is leading European countries to ‘reduce their [defence] budgets and troop numbers’, she expressed worries over the ‘real risk of strategic decline’ for Europe.

“The American umbrella cannot be universal or eternal. We must act to make sure that Europe has its own [security] capacities, in order to contribute to peace and world security”, she underlined, focusing in particular on the global war on terror and on piracy.

Trying to get Europeans to agree on security policy and pooling defence resources is a bit like herding cats. But, of late, there are signs that the French and the British, Europe’s two nuclear powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, are willing to share military tools, potentially including a Franco-British aircraft carrier.

America’s military spending dwarfs that of all of its rivals at present. That is likely to continue for several years hence, despite the continuing rise of China. And it would be insane to expect European nations to spend as much as the 4.3% of GDP that the US shells out every year for military equipment and personnel. However, what is clear is that a massive American military presence on the European continent is strategically of little use and costly for the United States – while US bases like Rammstein are of use at present for such matters as expert medical treatment of the wounded, few would argue that America still needs 57,080 soldiers in Germany, for instance.

There is no longer any substantial risk of Russia invading Poland or Germany. Europe should, at the very least, be expected to spend the minimal amount necessary to defend itself without American help. What is more, the EU has a greater total GDP than the United States. The fact that America is expected to act as the world’s policeman, while Europe sits on the sidelines and wrings its hands, is ridiculous. That does not mean that Europeans need to develop massive missile and satellite systems and engage in régime change and nation-building exercises around the world, but it does mean that the old continent should accept its responsibilities as a peaceful region with sufficient financial resources to do good around the globe. In the end, it’d be better for Europe to be its own master, for America to be able to use its military resources in a way that reflects 21st-century security realities, and for the world two have two positive actors for peace instead of one.