The facts paint a very different picture. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), out of the top ten host countries for refugees at year-end 2016, Germany, at number nine, was the only Western country on the list (Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon topped the list in that order).
Indeed, migration to advanced economies is overwhelmingly within existing legal frameworks. And given declining demographics and ageing populations, a major concern among policy makers across the West is not those fleeing war-torn zones but rather how to attract economic migrants, be it for seasonal or highly-skilled jobs.
France is no exception to this. As the OECD details in its new report it presented at France Stratégie on November 20, the country has made it a priority since the turn of the century to bring in foreign workers to bolster its job market.
No clear objective
Despite these efforts, the number of people who immigrate to France for work remains relatively low. In 2016 about 16% of newcomers from countries outside the EU, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland – so-called third countries – came to France because of work.
By comparison, 45% of immigrants to the UK and 37% to Spain from third countries in 2015 entered for work purposes, while the figures were lower for Germany (10%) and Italy (14%).
“France doesn’t have a clear objective where economic migrants are concerned,” said Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of the International Migration Division at the OECD. He pointed to Canada, an oft-cited exemplar when it comes to immigration, which has developed a vision over the medium to long term – to at least 2036 – to meet the challenges posed by an ageing population (it had close to 60% of its immigrants enter for work reasons in 2016, according to the Canadian Ministry for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship).
Perhaps not surprisingly given France’s colonial past, close to 40% of immigrants enter the country to join family members (almost half of these come from just three former colonies – Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia). The authors point out that these migrants and residents from the EU contribute at least twice and up to four times as much, respectively, to the job market as do those who migrate for work.
The overall picture the report paints is one of an inconsistent and opaque system. “There is too much discretion when it comes to granting work permits”, said Dumont. “There needs to be more coordination and harmonization.”
Requests are dealt with by each department (the administrative equivalent to a county), where there is limited ability to evaluate foreign credentials. This is compounded by a lack of guidance from Paris, limited coordination on a national level and a dearth of evaluation criteria in the labour code.
Regionalisation also has a clear impact on seasonal entrants, with mainly agricultural workers targeted in a few select regions, even though there are labour needs in other sectors across the country.
There are also statistical shortcomings. A list of jobs facing shortages, for example, was drawn up in 2008 but has not yet been updated. Using regional criteria used when granting work permits, the OECD concludes a mere 15% of the jobs on the list are in high demand today and a further third only in several large regions.
“The public policy instruments need to be modernized to meet the job market’s needs in real time,” said Dumont.
A promising new permit
Despite its success with students – close to a third of foreigners who come to pursue degrees remain in France after completing their education, one of the highest levels among OECD countries – the country clearly has difficulty attracting foreign workers. This is particularly the case for those with advanced degrees. The report states that while France is the second destination for potential migrants on the whole, it drops to eighth place behind countries like the US, Canada and the UK when it comes to highly educated migrants.
To make up for this, France has merged several work permits into one for highly-skilled workers. Known as Passeport talent, this new permit extends the duration of residence to four years for ten categries of labour migrants. Foreigners who have obtained an advanced degree in France are also eligible for the card.
Though its impact is hard to determine, the report highlights the permit could go far to increasing France’s attractiveness for foreign workers, provided the government backs and promotes it sufficiently. More specifically, as it isn’t granted at the regional level but instead by consulates (and prefectures for job changes), its success will also ride on coordinating inter-ministerial policy, raising awareness among employers and putting them in touch with foreign talent.