Hollande keeps promise to ease restrictions on foreign students

A controversial circular that restricted residence and employment rights for non-European students and graduates and led to many highly qualified foreigners being forced to leave France has been repealed by the new socialist interior minister, Manuel Valls, a year to the day after it was introduced by his predecessor.

The Guéant circular of 31 May 2011, named after its principal proponent, Claude Guéant, the right-wing interior minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, was introduced to control ‘professional immigration’.

It ordered prefectures, which are responsible for authorising residence, student and employment visas to foreigners, to enforce regulations ‘rigorously’ and carry out extensive controls on foreign students applying to change their status to that of employee.

Following its enforcement hundreds of non-European foreigners who had studied and obtained degrees in France, many of them highly qualified and employed in French companies, were unable to change their status.

They lost their right to work and live in France, and many had to leave the country.

The measures led to strong opposition from students, politicians, businesses and academics, including the three bodies representing the presidents of universities, grandes écoles and engineering schools.

As well as the futures of thousands of talented young people at stake, there were concerns that France’s international attractiveness and competitiveness in higher education and innovation would be damaged.

In his campaign before his election as France’s president on 6 May, François Hollande said he would repeal the circular, a promise kept last week by Valls.

At a meeting with representatives of the interior, higher education and social affairs ministries, student leaders were told the circular would be annulled from 31 May, and a favourable replacement, to be published in the next few days, would apply both to cases currently under examination and to new cases.

Student representatives welcomed the withdrawal of the circular, but said further measures were needed.

Emmanuel Zemmour, president of UNEF, France’s biggest student union, called for repeal of an order brought in last September increasing the resources foreign students needed to obtain a student visa, and for enactment of a circular authorising long-term residence permits for foreign masters and doctoral students, and its extension to undergraduates.

In addition Philippe Loup, president of students’ federation FAGE, called for revision of employment conditions for newly qualified foreign graduates, and abolition of the tax for renewal of student visas.

Discussion between the government and higher education representatives, including students, about the situation of foreign students and graduates is scheduled to take place during coming weeks, before an eventual parliamentary debate.

But no announcement is likely before the composition of the new national assembly is known, after 17 June, when the second and decisive round of the general election takes place.