French state memo signals volte-face on work visas

Ministry bows to academic pressure and reverses stricter post-study rules. Clea Caulcutt reports

January 19, 2012

Right to remain: public protests and private lobbying led to visa-policy retreat

The French government has made a U-turn on its post-study visa rules for overseas students following an outcry from the country's leading higher education institutions.

In changes described by Pierre Tapie, president of ESSEC Business School, as "a radical shift from the government's initial position (that) answers 90 per cent of our concerns", the French Ministry of the Interior last week issued a new diktat on student immigration, easing post-study visa rules for foreign graduates.

As Times Higher Education reported ("Visa plan a recipe for disaster, the crème de la crème argue", 3 November), the work-visa applications of hundreds of top overseas graduates who had found work in France were rejected or delayed last year after the Interior Ministry issued stricter immigration rules to local authorities in May.

But the memo sent last week calls on local officials to award foreign graduates who have completed a master's degree in France the right to work.

Caroline Fourest, a lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, said the move showed that the work-visa clampdown was a mistake: "The government went too far in its repressive and defensive policies, and this time realised it had gone too far, so it is a victory for us."

Others, however, have reacted more cautiously to the move.

There are currently hundreds of overseas graduates struggling to obtain work visas, according to the 31 May Group of students set up to protest against the rules.

Many students and academics say they will continue their protest against the government.

Dr Tapie, who leads the Conference of the Grandes Ecoles, a group of elite French universities, said academic lobbying had been crucial in securing the policy change.

"Our action was part-public, part-intense personal negotiation with government officials. We lobbied hard and brought individual cases to the attention of the highest levels of the administration," he said.

Ill-feeling abroad

The situation will be watched with interest by universities in the UK, which have argued vociferously against the coalition government's steps to clamp down on student immigration, including post-study work visas.

In France, as in the UK, the concern was partly about hostility to domestic institutions abroad, with the message appearing to be that international students were no longer welcome on French soil.

"That's why the protest has such resonance," said Yves Lecointe, president of the University of Nantes. "Everywhere university presidents were dealing with one, two, sometimes 10 or 20 cases of graduates struggling with their visa applications."

The campaign was joined by some of France's best-known scholars, including Nobel laureate Albert Fert, who said the regulations had already started to damage postdoctoral research in the country.

"Postdoc students in their prime are a real driving force in research labs," he said. "Today, many postdoc candidates are worried, and some have already seen their visa applications rejected."

The result, he said, was that France risked "sending its best brains abroad and will not see anybody coming here and compensating for this loss".

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