France Is Sending North African Graduates Home
CASABLANCA, MOROCCO — Nabil Sebti, a 25-year-old Moroccan graduate of HEC Paris, one of the best and most competitive business schools in Europe, has started two businesses in France, one while still a student and one just after graduation. Yet he found himself catapulted back to Morocco this year after being denied a work permit.
"What is going on is unthinkable for a country like France, one that encourages republican and extremely strong humanist values," said Mr. Sebti, who studied in Paris on a student visa and graduated in June and who had also attended a French secondary school in Morocco. "At a time of crisis, France deprives itself of contributors to its economic growth. We are not asking to stay in France forever. We just ask for the opportunity to get a first experience in France, which will allow us to contribute to the development of our countries."
They speak French as a mother tongue, pepper cafe conversation with Sartre and Camus and are educated at some of the most elite schools in the country. And yet, a tightening of French immigration rules is forcing many recently graduated foreign students back home to North Africa, where few jobs await, potentially depriving France of productive, highly trained labor.
On May 31, Interior Minister Claude Guéant and Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand of France sent a memo — now called the "May 31 Circular" — to all prefectures in France, demanding a stricter application of the law regarding the status of foreign students applying for work permits and demanding a tightening of the number of permits issued.
"The government has set a goal to adapt to the legally set immigration needs," the circular reads. "Given the impact of the most severe economic crisis in history on employment, this implies a reduction of the flow."
As a result, foreign students say, obtaining a work permit after graduation has become a major challenge, and, since June, hundreds of them have returned to North Africa to economies offering little or no employment prospects.
"It was never easy to change status, but there clearly is a before May 31 and an after May 31. Today, it's not difficult but almost impossible," said Mr. Sebti, spokesman for the Collectif du 31 Mai, a group he started on Facebook to assist students in the same position to organize protests and to inform the news media about actions against the memo. "Before, when someone fulfilled all the requirements, within three weeks, they would get an answer from the prefecture. Today, students wait months to almost systematically get a no."
Mr. Sebti said that at the Val d'Oise prefecture in the Paris region, "they say at the entrance the waiting time is 12 to 18 months" and that they have so far refused all permits. The two companies Mr. Sebti set up in France were the publishing and marketing of mobile applications for smartphones and a small consulting firm supporting entrepreneurs launching their start-up.
"For foreign students, the 'Circular Guéant' is like a surprise storm passing through, that sweeps away all professional projects, " said Youssef, 25, from Morocco, a recent graduate with a master's degree in economics from Paris-Dauphine University, another top school, who requested his last name not be used to avoid compromising a pending work visa application.
With the global economy in crisis, "it would be naïve to believe that Morocco will not be affected," he said. "I am concerned over the ability of my country to absorb the flow of these graduates.
Pierre-Henry Brandet, the Interior Ministry's spokesman, said that while the objective was clearly to control legal immigration, it was not to systematically refuse work permits to foreigners. The new regulations would ensure that students were in France for serious studies and did not abuse education visas as a backdoor immigration route, he said.
"This circular simply asks officials to enforce an immigration law that was passed in 2006," Mr. Brandet said in a phone interview. "Students eligible for a change of status must get a job in line with their studies. We are also concerned about not plundering the elites of others countries — these elites who are trained in France can contribute significantly to the development of their nations."