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France tightens work visa rules for foreign graduates

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2011-11-21

Following a memo signed by Interior Minister Claude Guéant (pictured), many foreign graduates in France have recently seen their applications for work permits rejected and are being told to leave the country. takes a closer look.

Nizar, a 25-year-old Algerian, has a Masters from ESPCI ParisTech, a top French engineering school. This past year, he signed a contract to work at Altran, a prestigious technology consulting firm.

But when he applied for a work permit, he got bad news: the French government was denying his request and asking him to return to Algeria. The reason given was that there were too many candidates for the type of job he was offered, and not enough positions available.

“It has absolutely changed my image of France,” Nizar told FRANCE 24. “I feel like I’ve been dragged through the mud.”

He is one of many foreign graduates in France, most of them fluent in French and holding diplomas from French schools, who have recently seen their applications for work permits rejected and are now being told to leave the country. Behind the tightening rules is a memo sent last May 31 by Interior Minister Claude Guéant calling for prefectures to reduce the number of work visas offered to non-EU graduates of French schools.

The new regulation has set off a storm of protests led by current and former foreign students who argue that the “May 31st circular” is contrary to French values and robs France of a highly-skilled work force. They are calling for the memo to be promptly withdrawn.

‘A negative message to foreign students’

Guéant’s memo notes that “the impact of the most severe economic crisis in history on employment…implies a reduction of the flow” of foreigners with French diplomas into the French work force.

Accordingly, applications have been subjected to what French immigration lawyer Stéphane Halimi calls “much greater rigour” in the selection process. "Since the May 31st circular, it’s much more difficult for a foreign student with a French graduate degree to obtain a work permit,” Halimi told FRANCE 24. “You really need to prove that there’s a lack of that kind of candidate on the French job market, and whereas before there was a certain benevolence toward these graduates, now a lot of their applications for work visas are refused.”

According to Nabil Sebti, a 25-year-old Moroccan graduate of top French business school HEC Paris, those refusals amount to “an undignified treatment of foreign students, given the values of a democratic country like France”. Sebti is the spokesperson for Collectif du 31 Mai, an association that has been organising protests against the memo, as well as informing the press and lobbying political leaders to publicly oppose it.

Sebti told FRANCE 24 that foreign graduates’ applications for work permits are often turned down for what he called “aberrant reasons”. He gave the example of a Tunisian woman with a marketing degree from a French school being told that the marketing job she had been offered was not in line with her diploma.

He also said foreign graduates who apply for work permits are sometimes kept waiting for several months or even prevented from dropping off their application at the appropriate office. North Africans have been particularly affected by the “May 31st Circular”, Sebti noted, since they make up a high proportion of foreign students in France.

France currently ranks fourth world-wide in number of international students. But that standing won’t last if France continues to apply the slowdown in work permits granted to foreign students, Sebti argues. “The memo has an impact on the competitiveness and attractiveness of higher education in France. It sends a negative message to foreign students,” Sebti said.

That concern has also been expressed by the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles, an organisation of top French engineering and management schools that has asked the interior ministry to explain why so many recent graduates with job offers in France have been asked to return to their native countries.

“It’s bad for the cultural and scientific reputation of France in the world,” Sebti noted, pointing out that several articles about the memo – and the protests against it -- had been published in the international press, including in The New York Times.

Economic initiative or electoral strategy?

Most of all, though, Sebti and his association have argued that the new rules will have a harmful effect on a struggling French economy – the opposite of the memo’s declared purpose. “French businesses employ qualified foreigners to open up foreign markets. They need people who speak the language of those markets, and who know the local codes and culture,” Sebti said. “The Guéant circular threatens that.”

The interior ministry has defended the memo, with Guéant telling French weekly magazine Le Point that “non-European students came to France to study, not to enter the job market….Their main goal should be to return home so as to enable their country to benefit from their skills”.

But if the primary purpose of the memo is to help combat unemployment in France (by freeing up positions previously offered to foreigners), foreign graduates like Sebti remain skeptical. “Frankly, most unemployed people in France are not qualified for the same positions as the foreign graduates affected by the new rules,” Sebti said.

He and other critics of the memo see a political manoeuvre on the part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right UMP party, just months before Sarkozy is up for re-election. “This circular is part of an electoral strategy,” Sebti assessed. “It’s meant to pull in [far-right] National Front voters, as well as those who have been hit by unemployment and think that this new system will help them.”

Meanwhile, those foreign students whose applications for a work permit have been turned down find themselves faced with the choice of fighting the decision or leaving France. Nizar told FRANCE 24 that with the support of Altran, the company who had offered him a contract, he has hired a lawyer and is contesting the decision.

“I’m not optimistic,” he said. “I’m also applying for jobs in Canada. But I might end up going back to Algeria.”

Date created : 2011-11-15