Why France needs foreign talent

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  • quartier d'affaires de La Defense, Paris
Published on 2021-11-24 at 13:30 by Mikki Beru
The Quebec 2022 Immigration Plan, the call for foreign talent in Canada, the United States, Australia... The biggest economies are opening their doors to qualified foreign workers. And there is nothing new here: many are lands of immigration and rely on foreign talent to boost their growth, and do so with success. What about France?

Foreign talent: France lags behind

In terms of welcoming foreign talent: France lags behind with a poorly defined strategy to attract foreign talent therefore leaving the country struggling to compete with other economic powers.

In his opening speech at the global meeting on education at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on November 10, French President Emmanuel Macron maintained that he wanted to "allow every child, regardless of origin, to have access to positions, responsibilities, opportunities, simply because of their talents and commitment." He displayed the same determination a little earlier, on October 12, when he unveiled his "France 2030" plan, built in part with Master's and Doctorate students. Is this a realization that France is lagging behind other nations? Macron wants to move quickly and promises "a massive investment of 2.5 billion for [...] talent" as well as an acceleration of training in new fields and cutting-edge sectors. 

"France 2030", "La France Tech"... Skilled foreign labor is directly targeted by these programs. Launched in 2013 under the Hollande government, France Tech has continued to develop, and intends to create clusters in the fields of digital and new technologies capable of competing with Silicon Valley. In a report published on November 9, the French Council for Economic Analysis (CAE) stated that although France finally entered the top 20 most attractive countries (19th) in 2020, its position is still worrisome. The Insead and Portulans management school, which conducted the study, notes that France is still far behind the top three: Switzerland, Singapore and the United States. As a land of immigration, the United States is setting itself up as a model, despite ethnic tensions - at least America is showing more willingness to promote foreign talent. 

Success by example: the American model

For Emmanuelle Auriol and Hillel Rapoport, authors of the CAE study, "the countries with the highest immigration rates in the world are all rich countries. And the experts note that skilled immigrants have more developed skills than locals: creativity, innovation, risk-taking, independence... These foreign talents are often bilingual or even multilingual. They show a capacity to adapt quickly. They dare to develop their ideas, invest differently in their work, like to share, learn from others, master the art of compromise... Leaving one's country to embrace the culture of another state is no easy feat. Anglo-Saxon culture values this risk-taking. It is the myth of the "self-made man", of the "American dream". Indra Nooyi, businesswoman and former head of PepsiCo, Sundar Pichai, head of Google, Christiane Amampour, CNN international anchor and author, Isabel Allende, journalist and writer, Elon Musk, chairman of Tesla, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, amongst others, were all born abroad and have achieved success in the United States. They are the spokespeople for successful immigration. In their wake, they urge young foreigners to try their luck.

The U.S. is encouraging this approach, having long since realized the great potential of this workforce - the Silicon Valley model. Although immigrants represent only 13% of the total American population, they make up twice as many entrepreneurs. Talented entrepreneurs who are known beyond American borders. It's a virtuous circle. Foreign talent contributes to American growth and global influence. Investors flock to the United States, directly attracted by these same foreign talents, who build real economic and diplomatic bridges between their country of origin and their host country.

In France, there are few role models: the journalist Christine Ockrent, the businesswoman Mercedes Erra, the CEO of Altrad, businessman and president of Montpellier Hérault rugby Mohed Altrad... Some criticize the French migration policy, which does not encourage the arrival of talent. Worse: France is said to be locked into a partial vision of immigration, a whiff of colonialism regularly reactivated by far-right populists. The current debates of far-right candidates for the 2022 presidential elections only point to one form of immigration. In this partial and distorted vision, where the foreigner/immigrant is necessarily a poor individual from under-developped countries, the promotion of foreign talent is almost impossible. And observers remind us that "expatriate" and "immigrant" are almost synonymous and should be used as such. Lost in identity debates, France has fallen considerably behind in the development of economic immigration. 

Attracting foreign talent: a challenge for growth

How to attract foreign talent? The talent passport, a specific visa supposed to attract qualified foreigners, is underutilized (barely 13,500 first-time applicants in 2019, according to the Ministry of the Interior). Other powers, led by Canada and the United States, have built their economies on immigration. Calls for skilled labor are regular and unambiguous. Quebec's latest immigration law intends to attract approximately 70,500 newcomers by 2022, the majority of whom are skilled workers. Job offers are numerous and cover all economic sectors: health, administration, food services, liberal professions, teaching, sports, crafts... This is a considerable asset for Quebec (the situation is the same in Canada) and confirms its position as a privileged land for expatriation. In the United States and Australia, the notion of "foreign talent" is also understood in a broad sense. As a result, Canada and Australia attract a majority of foreigners with high-level degrees.

In France, the opposite is true. "Immigration for work, and particularly for skilled work, remains marginal in our country," observe Emmanuelle Auriol and Hillel Rapoport. Few high-level graduates, and job offers too limited to the world of new technologies. By taking the wrong turn, France has slowed its growth. In 2019, only 13% of residence permits were issued for economic reasons. One year later, 39,000,000 million individuals made a first application for a residence permit for economic reasons (34,000,000 in 2019). There are 91,000,000 to have made the same application for family reasons (similar figure in 2019 and 2020). There is still much to be done to reverse the trend, and become a country as competitive as other powers.