PARIS — The French government was forced to backtrack Wednesday on an effort to tighten visa regulations for foreign students who want to stay on and work in France after graduating from elite French schools.
The shift back to a more open policy came in response to an outcry from foreign students, university groups and the French Business Confederation. They said that the new rule not only betrayed France’s long tradition of welcoming foreigners but also risked depriving French universities of their standing abroad and French companies of valuable assets for winning lucrative foreign contracts.
“We messed up,” Higher Education Minister Laurent Wauquiez acknowledged on French television.
The policy was altered in May by Interior Minister Claude Gueant as part of a general tightening of visa requirements and an attempt to limit the number of foreigners who receive authorization to reside here. The move jibed with a popular hardening of policy toward foreign residents, particularly those from Muslim countries, ahead of a two-round presidential election this April and May.
In a circular, the ministry said authorities should consider “with vigor” requests to move from student visas to work visas and should carry out a “deepened control” before making a decision. The clear message to officials at the visa window, critics pointed out, was to cut back on the number of visas.
In the summer, student groups, business executives and university authorities noticed that a growing number of graduates — including those already recruited by French companies — were having trouble getting work visas. More than 500 were held up, authorities reported, but 300 of those were eventually granted on appeal.
About 2.3 million post-secondary students are enrolled in France — about 12 percent of whom are foreign. Of those, 40 percent come from North African and sub-Saharan countries with mostly Muslim populations. But the number of foreign students who attend the elite “great schools” — whose graduates are often recruited by French companies and whose future was at the center of the controversy — is relatively small.
Nabil Sebti, a Moroccan who graduated from the prestigious Superior Commercial Studies school and had trouble getting a work visa, founded a group called the May 31 Collective. Through appeals on the Internet and interviews in the news media, the group attracted wide attention. After the Interior Ministry called to say he could have a visa, Sebti said, he decided to return to Morocco rather than let down the collective by seeming to accept favoritism.
By that time, a petition demanding a return to the status quo had been launched with 18,500 signatures, including that of Albert Fert, a Nobel Prize-winning physics professor. Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, who has wide contacts in the academic world, then said on television that he personally had a problem with the change but could not challenge it as a minister.
Charles Givadinovitch, who is in charge of anti-poverty programs in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s parliamentary coalition, found no problem challenging it. “The change goes against economic logic,” he said, “since our companies really need these qualified employees who bring their double culture, which is a real asset.”
Sarkozy, who has promoted a policy of selective immigration favoring the most qualified, called in Gueant last month.
After a conversation at the Elysee Palace, the interior minister announced that his May circular would be clarified.
As a result, Gueant, Wauquiez and Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand met Wednesday with the presidents of the Conference of Great Schools, the Conference of University Presidents and the Conference of French Engineering School Directors to present a new version of the directive.
An Interior Ministry communique said it orders officials to grant temporary work visas to foreigners with master’s and higher degrees.