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.

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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.

The Tobin Tax is back…

Nicolas Sarkozy (yes, I realise I’m talking about him a lot today) just took over the G8 and G20 presidencies – and is already making some waves, says Le Point:

The President of the Republic called for the establishment of a tax on financial transactions, “the best method” for finding “new resources for development”. “France considers that this tax is a moral issue, given the financial crisis that we have recently experienced, that will be useful in reducing speculation and efficient in finding new resources for development”, explained the head of state. “I know all too well that this tax has powerful enemies and adversaries on the road towards its implementation. We will try to convince them to come over to our side,” he added.

I agree with Sarkozy on this, and it’s not the first time that he’s mentioned the need for such a tax. And the idea of the Tobin Tax has been around for almost 40 years. Originally limited to spot conversions of one currency to another, the concept has been developed by other actors, where it has evolved in the minds of many to a more general financial transaction tax. The basic reasoning is that taxing all financial transactions – perhaps at a rate of 0.5% – would reduce speculation and encourage long-term investment; the money raised by such a tax would be used to fund development projects in the Third World.

A levy of this kind has received considerable support from individuals like European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and former British PM Gordon Brown. And I wish it could become a reality – I really do. While there has been valid criticism of the Tobin Tax from people like Tim Harford in the FT, suggesting that it could actually increase volatility by encouraging larger transactions, most economists do seem to agree that it would help reduce short-term fluctuations in the market, possibly meaning that runs on currencies and other such phenomena could be avoided in future.

But the Obama administration has already shot down similar proposals in the past – remember Gordon Brown’s abortive efforts in 2010 to encourage the establishment of a global financial transaction tax? There’s no appetite in the US for a Tobin Tax – and President Obama would be the worst-placed to call for one, suffering as he already is from accusations of anti-American globalist socialist leanings and all the rest. Nicolas Sarkozy is just engaging in his usual posturing and pandering here, unfortunately. It’s a shame, because he’s actually onto something with this particular issue.

Sarkozy’s Facebook page hacked

For fifteen minutes on Sunday night, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Facebook page carried the following news bombshell:

“My fellow citizens, given the exceptional circumstances that our country is experiencing, I decided in my soul and in my conscience not to run for re-election at the end of my first term in 2012.”

Alas, it was only a hacker having a bit of fun. But before it was taken down, 123 people had a chance to ‘like’ the status update. A vote of confidence for the incumbent head of state if ever there was one!

DSK and the French presidential election: frontrunners and the party base

Dominique Strauss-Kahn (or DSK, as he is universally known in France), current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, former French Finance Minister and moderate social-democrat (and, just for full disclosure, my undergraduate economics professor at Sciences Po), has been the presumptive favourite and front-runner in the 2012 French presidential election since about 2009. While speculation is still ongoing about whether he will actually leave his current job and come back to France to run for the socialist nomination (his position at the IMF precludes him from making overtly political and partisan statements), it is generally assumed that party elders would more or less immediately clear the field for him should he decide to run. If he doesn’t, the consensus is that Martine Aubry, leader of the Socialist Party, would probably announce her candidacy and be the overwhelming favourite to win the nomination.

DSK is enormously popular in France. The latest BVA poll has him beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy 64-36 – a lead of 28 points! This is down to his centrist aura and his perceived economic expertise (he has a Ph.D in Economics, and, well, he’s head of the IMF). Basically, he has the crossover appeal to win over the 18% of French people who voted for centrist François Bayrou in 2007, while still appealing to most of the left. But those same centrist politics turn off likely primary voters within the Socialist Party – and now seem to be threatening his chances of winning his party’s nomination, as a new CSA poll shows:

They haven’t yet declared their candidacies for the socialist primary, they promised not to run against each other,  but none of that matters, because the polls are doing it for them. The latest: a CSA poll for BFMTV/RMC/20Minutes this Thursday compares Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Martine Aubry’s scores in a hypothetical primary. And, surprisingly, DSK would come out ahead in the first round of the Socialist Party primary but would lose against Martine Aubry in the second round (click here to see the poll in PDF format).

This isn’t altogether surprising – a moderate who runs the IMF shouldn’t have an easy ride in a socialist primary. And it’s what always happens in intra-party contests, which is why Evan Bayh could never win the democratic nomination in the US, for example. “Moderates” are never particularly popular with a party’s base. But in this particular case, it’s a shame. Despite polls indicating that Aubry would beat Sarkozy in the presidential election, she was the Social Affairs Minister under Jospin who was responsible for the 35-hour working week, and is seen as being quite a solid left-winger. That would hurt her against Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s a frighteningly good campaigner and whom no-one should be ruling out just yet. DSK, on the other hand, would be almost certain to win in 2012.