FRANCE: New circular to clarify foreign student rules

Interior Minister Claude Guéant is to issue a new circular next week specifically to cover employment of highly qualified foreign students. The move follows criticism from academics, employers, students and politicians over tightened restrictions on professional immigration that led to many non-European Union graduates being refused permission to stay and work in France.

After a meeting on Wednesday with higher education leaders, ministers announced that the police authorities responsible for dealing with visa and work permit applications would next week receive the new circular giving directions applicable to the specific situation of foreign graduates with at least a masters degree who wanted to acquire their first professional experience in France.

But student, educational and anti-racism representatives rejected the ministers' latest proposals, and promised to continue their opposition until the restrictions were withdrawn.

A previous circular published jointly by the ministries of the interior and of employment on 31 May 2011 required administrative authorities to treat applications for work permits, especially those from students, more rigorously. Guéant, its principal proponent, insisted that the circular merely repeated existing laws on the rights of foreigners to work in France.

But the three bodies representing presidents of universities (CPU), grandes écoles (CGE) and engineering schools (CDEFI), as well as employers' organisations, expressed anxieties when thousands of foreigners who had studied in France - and who would previously have been hired by French companies keen to use their employees' 'double culture' and language skills for their international activities - were refused residence and work permits.

Students' and lecturers' unions demanded withdrawal of the circular, and employers called for flexibility in its application.

Laurent Wauquiez, minister for higher education and research, and his predecessor Valérie Pécresse, stressed the government's wish to attract talented foreign students to educate a future international elite.

Prime Minister François Fillon wrote to the CPU, CGE, CDEFI and the employers' Association Française des Entreprises Privées in November, assuring them that France was "extremely attached" to its tradition of educating foreign students and that he had ordered a reexamination of some cases where graduates had been refused residence permits.

But in spite of his intervention La Tribune reported just before Christmas that the police authorities responsible for authorising visa and work permit applications were still zealously applying the restrictive circular.

Opposition and criticism continued. Medef, the employers' federation, described as "suicidal, these contradictory injunctions", and said that "France must remain an open and attractive country", reported La Tribune.

Students stepped up their demands for cancellation of the circular, and a petition was set up by a group of academics and intellectuals, including Nobel prize-winning physician Albert Fert, who condemned it as "morally inadmissible, politically dangerous and economically absurd".

Wauquiez said: "I don't want the French university to close its doors to foreign students, I find that ridiculous. We got it wrong, and we must say so clearly, about a circular which has given this impression, this image to the outside world."

Minister of Culture Fréderic Mitterrand said that, having spent his time welcoming foreigners, "this circular presents me with a problem".

Charles Givadinovitch, national secretary of the ruling UMP party in charge of insecurity and poverty, called on Guéant to annul the circular and condemned the "ridiculous situation where students and active young people educated in the French system in our universities and grandes écoles find themselves refused a work visa".

He also expressed anxiety at the "tarnished image of our country throughout the world caused by the effects of this circular. Many qualified students are questioning whether to come to study in France...So much for the attractiveness of our education system".

Faced with mounting academic and public opposition and growing disquiet within the government, on 23 December Guéant announced that he would publish a new circular on employment of foreign students, which would "supplement" the previous one and clear up misunderstandings.

On Wednesday Guéant, Wauquiez and Employment