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FRANCE: Professional Immigration in France: Update and Outlook

A French government circular of May 31, 2011, instructed the labor authorities to apply greater scrutiny in adjudicating work permits and to interpret the regulations restrictively, with the aim of reducing the number of foreign nationals being admitted to France for professional purposes. On a more positive note, France has created a new immigration category by implementing the European Union (EU) Blue Card directive to attract skilled workers from third countries and facilitate the mobility and permanent residence of such workers within the EU. Details of these developments are provided below.

Restrictive measures: greater scrutiny of employer and employment. Under the government circular, the labor authorities are to deepen the scrutiny with which they verify the existence of the employer and its past and present compliance with the labor, social security, and immigration regulations. Any violations may be sufficient grounds to deny a work permit application.

Labor market tests must be applied strictly and an application will be denied if market analysis reveals insufficiently high demand for the position sought to be filled or the possibility of filling the position by a training program in the near future. Any advertising seeking candidates for a position must be carried out for a reasonable period of time. "Two to three months" is considered reasonable, whereas in the past the administration considered two to three weeks reasonable.

The labor authorities also must evaluate if the foreign worker is not under- or overqualified for the employment offered. If he or she is underqualified, the application must be denied. If he or she is overqualified, the advertisement must be modified and published again.

Such authorities must also verify that:

  • the compensation meets the appropriate thresholds, as determined by the collective bargaining agreements, market, and the minimum salary laws;
  • the candidate has adequate knowledge of the French language; and
  • the candidate is provided adequate housing.

Restrictive measures: greater scrutiny of change-of-status applications. The circular urges French labor authorities to examine any request for a change of status very carefully, especially when such applications are made by foreign students. The circular states that foreign students must return to their home countries after the end of the schooling.

These instructions resulted in a massive protest by universities and students, and even criticism within the government. The government issued a new circular on January 13, 2012, which provides guidance to adjudicating officers to avoid tarnishing the attractiveness of French schools to foreign students and undermining French business in need of young foreign talent.

These restrictive measures do not apply to work permit categories which receive preferential processing, such as intra-company transfers, secondments, and seasonal workers.

These restrictive measures have increased the processing time for all work permit categories.

List of jobs for which workers are in shortage reduced by half. A decree of August 11, 2011, has reduced to half the list of jobs in certain fields where employers encounter difficulties in recruiting workers. The list now contains only 14 job categories, as opposed to 30 previously. Foreign workers may fill these jobs without first having to go through a labor market test as part of their work permit application. The reduced list applies throughout the French territory, unlike the previous regional lists, which allowed local market situations to be taken into account. This list will be revised by August 1, 2013, at the latest.

France has signed bilateral agreements regarding the control of migration flows with several countries (Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Gabon, Mauritius, Benin, Congo, Senegal, and Tunisia). These agreements allow nationals to obtain work permits under conditions negotiated country by country, and may contain a more generous list of jobs.

Good news: the French Blue Card permit. Law no. 2011-672 of June 16, 2011, and decree no. 2011-1049 of September 6, 2011, provide the legal framework for the transposition of the EU "Blue Card" directive into French law.

The qualifying criteria are in accordance with the criteria stated in the EU directive:

  1. An employment contract with a duration of one year or more;
  2. A minimum annual salary threshold of 1.5 times the average salary of reference, which is determined by the Minister of Interior on an annual basis. According to the current reference salary (€ 34,296), this annual salary threshold is € 51,444; and
  3. A three-year higher education diploma or equivalent knowledge through five years of experience.

A qualifying third-country national is issued a joint residence and work permit for the length of employment, with maximum validity of three years. This permit is renewable. An accompanying spouse is issued a "Private and Family Life" category work permit, renewed annually for as long as the main applicant has a valid Blue Card permit.

The Blue Card may also be issued to a third-country national who already holds a Blue Card issued by another member state and wants to accept employment in France. This can occur after 18 months of residence under the initial Blue Card. The application is made within one month of arrival in France. The applicant need not present a long-stay French visa.

The Blue Card permit is issued without labor market testing. Its beneficiary and his or her spouse may qualify for the EU long-term resident permit after five years of residence under the Blue Card in the EU, of which only the last two years must be in France.

The French authorities have up to 90 days to adjudicate the Blue Card application and up to 6 months to adjudicate the accompanying spouse residence permit.

The advantages of the Blue Card over other categories are:

  • It does not require an intra-company prior employment;
  • Mobility within EU is facilitated;
  • Acquisition of long-term resident status is facilitated; and
  • The qualifying criteria are very precise (leaving less room for the discretion of the government).

The Blue Card is expected to be very good news for skilled third-country nationals who are unable to qualify under other categories.

Prognosis for the future: France has one of the highest birth rates in Europe. It is doing fine in replenishing its population. But France still needs immigrants more than ever to satisfy its need for qualified workers and to be a prominent actor in a global economy. The current government understood this well when it created regulations adapted to global employment needs of multinational groups and allowed graduating foreign students to seek employment in France, and thus keep the talent in the country.

So what happened? The electoral campaign started this year and immigration is a hot issue in France, as it is in most other European countries. With its new anti-business immigration stance, the government is trying to recapture the voters it may have antagonized by its pro-business conduct in preceding years.

Business should be back to normal by the middle of this year, after the presidential and parliamentary elections.

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