FRANCE: PM backs tough rules for foreign students

France's Prime Minister François Fillon (pictured) has defended the controversial tightening up of residence and employment rules for non-European students and graduates in the face of concerns expressed by higher education leaders.

They had articulated anxieties over a circular to control 'professional immigration' that has led to many highly qualified foreigers being refused permission to remain and work in France.

In a letter to the heads of the three bodies representing presidents of higher education institutions, Fillon wrote that France was "extremely attached" to its tradition of receiving foreign students and that he had ordered reexamination of some cases, most of which had been - or were about to be - settled.

Minister for Higher Education and Research Laurent Wauquiez and Interior Minister Claude Guéant, principal proponent of the contentious circular, have also sought to clarify the government's policy towards foreign students.

The circular, issued in May by the ministries of the interior and of health, ordered préfectures to examine "rigorously" requests for work permits from students, and to carry out extensive control of non-European foreigners applying to change their status from that of student to employee.

Many foreigners who had graduated from French higher education found themselves refused permission to stay in the country when they were offered a first job with a French company. Students organised protests against the circular, and leaders in the higher education community voiced alarm.

In his letter to the organisations representing university presidents (CPU), the grandes écoles (CGE) and engineering schools (CDEFI), together with the Association Française des Entreprises Privées, Fillon wrote: "France is extremely attached to its tradition of welcoming foreign students, who represent an important element of the international attractivity of its schools and universities.

"Our objective is to attract the best students in the world, especially in masters and doctorates, to heighten the influence of our higher education and our country. In addition, certain French companies need, for their international development, to acquire the skills of foreign students at the highest level.

Fillon said the policy of being attractive and competitive corresponded to the need to control professional immigration better, to take into account the realities of France's employment market and unemployment among young graduates. "It equally takes into account the necessity to fight against abuses and misappropriations that can sometimes be the object[ive] of student mobility."

He said the circular of 31 May combined these three objectives of influence, competititiveness of companies and control of immigration. Recalling the terms of the law, it asked commissioners of police to regulate the flow of professional immigration by adopting sometimes a 'qualitative and selective' approach and in so doing taking the qualifications of the applicant into account.

"This circular does not indicate, therefore, a policy of closure," he wrote. "The number of student visas remains stable in 2011 compared with 2010. The number of changes from student to employee status continues to increase. In this context, the circular recalls the objective of excellence we are pursuing."

However, Fillon added, it was apparent some foreign graduates who fitted this strategy had not been granted a residence permit allowing them to stay in France at the end of their studies. "At my request, these cases have been reexamined: most of them have been settled or are about to be."

France considered that the talents of the students in whose education it had invested represented an advantage for the country, wrote Fillon. But obvious abuse, disjointed study programmes or 'social dumping' practices would not give the right to a change of status, he wrote.

He said France was very attached to what foreign graduates from developing countries could do to benefit their countries of origin through their skills. These students could ask for provisional authorisation to stay in France to acquire their first professional experience.

In a joint statement the CPU, CGE and CDEFI welcomed Fillon's clarification, noting in particular that all foreign students graduating with at least a masters degree could ask for provisional residence authorisation so they could stay for a first professional experience. They understood from a meeting with relevant ministers that the process to review individual situations was under way and had produced important preliminary results.

Wauquiez told a press briefing the so-called 'Guéant circular' was simply a reminder of existing law and had been badly interpreted by préfectures in its application, which had not conformed to the government's policies on foreign students. "I think we have drawn lessons on what was not working. We had some difficulties in its application, and we have corrected them," he said.

Corrective instructions had been sent to préfectures and more than half of the 500 cases sent to the ministry by grandes ecoles and universities had been positively reviewed, with the rest due to be dealt with by the deadline at the end of the year, said Wauquiez.

Reasons for refusing a change of status were if there was no connection between the course of studies followed and the job a graduate was applying for; or if the employment was in a sector where the French were themselves having difficulties finding work. But this was not the case in engineering, for example, said Wauquiez: "We need 40,000 engineers, while we only train 30,000 a year; it's absolutely vital to recruit."

In an article in Le Monde, Guéant explained that the circular merely reiterated an existing law of 2006 that gave masters and doctoral graduates the right to a salaried six-month stay "for a first professional experience in an activity corresponding to the education followed", and this right had not changed.

He added: "If the applications from foreign nationals correspond to the qualifications or professions in which France has labour shortages, authorisations will be granted. If that is not the case, they are refused."

Guéant also drew attention to the problem of brain drain: "I cannot bring myself cynically to assume the pillaging of brains in the countries of origin which often need to build up a class of managers." It was an approach that was contrary to the government's policy of development solidarity, he wrote.

Related links:
FRANCE: Foreign student rules a threat to image
FRANCE: Ministers divided on foreign student rules
FRANCE: Immigration restrictions hit foreign students
FRANCE: Ministers unveil foreign student strategy