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Before joining your family, learn French

Text by Priscille LAFITTE

Latest update : 2008-12-20

Aspiring migrants hoping to be reunited with their families in France are now required to take a French language test. But the French government has lowered its expectations and candidates aren’t actually required to pass it.

“I would like all family reunification program candidates to take a test demonstrating their basic knowledge of French in our consulates.” Nicolas Sarkozy was clear what he wanted to do back in March 2007, while still a presidential candidate.

Less than two years later, the programs have just been set up. Since Dec. 1, family reunification candidates from Morocco, Mali and Turkey now have to take a French language test to get a visa. The test includes questions about the French language and the ‘values of the Republic.’ If they fail, candidates are required to take lessons in their home countries.

This measure, enforced by the French immigration and integration ministry, led by Brice Hortefeux, has changed the basic philosophy guiding family reunification cases and has sparked criticism from immigrant rights groups. The implementation details, to be found in an as yet unpublished circular and in a Dec. 2 diplomatic telegram - seen by FRANCE 24 – raises the potential for tensions between immigrants and the French administration.

The Dutch example

The government was forced to back down on one crucial point: candidates don't actually have to pass the test to be accepted for the programs. But they do have to attend the compulsory 40-hour course.

Sarkozy’s initial intention was to follow the Dutch example, where potential immigrants are required to pass a Dutch language and culture test taken in their home countries, at a cost of 350 euros.

According to a source close to the ministry: “At first France was going to copy the Dutch system and make a successful language test compulsory. But Hortefeux’s team wanted to avoid falling under the Constitutional Council’s jurisdiction, which protects the right to family reunifications, as well as the critical Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects private and family lives. The Dutch model, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, is too controversial to be imitated."
Encouraging a selective approach

Since the criteria of passing the test was abandoned, politicians and organisations fear that the new measure is a resource drainer. “The only thing this does, in my opinion, is increase the red tape to dissuade immigration candidates,” says Socialist senator Claudine Lepage.

These fears are not unfounded. According to speeches in 2007 by Sarkozy and Hortefeux, the government initially had two goals: to reduce immigrants coming in on family reunification programs and to integrate them more successfully. “This project […] intends to reduce the dominance of family reunion cases and to reinforce the social integration of the family reunification candidates,” the immigration minister told parliament in Sept. 2007, while defending the measure. In a March 2007 speech, Sarkozy also linked the language tests with a fall in family reunification cases.

The discourse has since changed:  Hortefeux now only talks about the integration of immigrants helped by French language lessons taken in their countries of origin.

Does the new measure then serve as an aid to more effective integration or as a brake on family immigration? The immigration ministry declined to respond to FRANCE 24’s questions.

Six-month delays

For starters, the new measure has delayed family reunifications by six months. “It should be known that the initial family gathering request already takes between six to 18 months. Because of adding the six months needed to pass this new French test and complete the course, families can now be separated for a year, even two years. That complicates an already prolonged process,” notes Sarah Belaïsch of Cimade, a French NGO providing assistance to refugees and immigrants.

Another concrete obstacle is whether immigrants have the means to do the language courses. Admittedly, the French course is free. But people still have to get to the venue where the courses are held over a two-month period. “What about those who live far from the big cities? Who will pay the transportation and living costs for candidates who live hundreds of kilometres away? All these are designed to dissuade candidates,” asks Kamel Djendoubi, director of AEFTI, a French organisation that works on training courses for immigrant workers and their families.
Ample room for arbitrary decisions


According to the diplomatic telegram sent to French embassies and consulates on Dec. 2, several exemptions could be allowed. In particular if the candidate’s resources - or lack of - make it impossible to take the language course. “In case of law and order problems, natural or technological disasters, acts of war or when the completion of the tests produces physical or financial constraints or compromises the safety of the foreign national, the visa applicant can be exempted from this requirement,” the French foreign ministry states.
But how many exemptions will really be granted? Based on what criteria? “The diplomatic or consular authority retains the right to consider the reality of the situation involved,” says the circular, due to be published soon. Embassies and consulates will not have to justify the reasons for which they grant an exemption or not. “There are possibilities for exemption, and not obligations for exemption. That leaves the course open to arbitrary decisions,” says Belaïsch. “If the person does not have the means to complete the course, the sanction is heavy: a visa refusal,” she says.

Funding the new measure


For the moment, the language course is free (a budget of 2,405,000 euros has been allocated for 2009). The ruling UMP party initially wanted to make applicants pay for the test – like the Dutch government requires. But Hortefeux resisted the idea, fearing it would be opposed by the constitutional council.
To finance the new measure, Hortefeux told parliament in Sept. 2007, “We will increase the price of the visa stamp in order to spread the costs.”

As is happens, visa prices have not increased. But immigrant groups fear a big rise could dissuade immigration candidates completely.


Date created : 2008-12-19