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The hassles that foreigners who are “welcome” in France have to go through.

Translated Sunday 3 February 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Undocumented immigrants. Foreign engineering students have a hard time getting a residence permit, despite the promises made by Minister of Immigration Brice Hortefeux.

Proposition 221 of the Attali report is that France should “welcome more tuition-paying foreign students." Immigration minister Brice Hortefeux is all for it: “What this report puts forward is the relaunch of economic growth and an increase in the number of skilled workers.” All well and good, but that isn’t what Bayrem, a Tunisian engineering student specializing in mathematics, has experienced. Appointment after appointment, it took him months to obtain a residence permit from the CROUS [1].

The procedure is fastidious: First you have to make an appointment, but you can’t do that over the phone. You have to go in person. Then, once you’ve been granted an interview, you’ve got to bring a mountain of documents. “Not just your student card, you’ve got to have everything!” said Bayrem, laughing. You only get your receipt after that. The receipt is the magic document that opens all doors until your residence permit arrives. Getting one is considered to be a mighty feat. One breakdown in the procedure and you’re back to square one. Olfa, who is also an engineering student, found that out the hard way. She had to begin all over again, waiting for hours in the crowded rooms and corridors of the CROUS. Being late or missing an appointment slows the procedure down so much that months of planned study in France can be wiped out. Najoua, a Moroccan student, was unable to complete her education in Canada as she had intended, for lack of a French residence permit.

You’re always waiting. Waiting for the prefecture to show a sign of life, when it hasn’t simply forgotten about you... That’s what happened to Zineb who wanted to go home for Christmas, went to the prefecture, and discovered that her residence permit had been there “for an eternity.” Without a residence permit, students no longer have any right to housing assistance and they miss days of classes. Every year, they have to go through the whole procedure all over again. Worse yet, the procedure changes from one year to the next. “You’ve got to know all the tricks,” Bayrem said, laughing.

But having these documents isn’t always enough. The situation becomes more difficult when it comes to student internships, without which you can’t get an engineering degree, or a job later on. To be able to take on a student intern, a company has to show that no French national was available for the position. That’s the “French nationals come first” rule. So companies rig things, taking advantage of the length of the student internship to state that no French national could take the position.

For all Brice Hortefeux’s fine talk, such is the daily experience of these engineering students, who are the archetype of immigrants who are “welcome” in France. Both students and companies wonder at the reasons for this bureaucratic maze.

[1The CROUS (Centre Régional des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires) is an organization that attributes dormitory rooms and scholarships to students, manages university cafeterias, and undertakes cultural actions.

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