Foreign Students in France: Second Zone Citizens?

A Bureaucracy Labyrinth for International Students

August 10, 2013  |  By Paula Osorio, Venezuela

Foreign Students in France: Second Zone Citizens?

Immigration has become useful for politicians in France, especially because it has an electoral impact in an economical crisis period. The new, leftist government hasn’t been able to take a strong leading position regarding this topic; because it has been drowning trying to pass what it considers the priority to recover the French economy unit. We can’t forget that Germany and France are the two main European economies, even if the latter has been struggling with increasing unemployment, bankrupt companies and French products exports’ diminution. Still, the state is confronting what medias describe as a main problem without taking account of viable solutions such as immigration. Even if this article will mostly refer to international students, a particular type of immigration, the article applies to a whole community in France: all victims of state’s power through a reinforced bureaucracy. 

France is the 3rd country in the world that attracts the most international students after the Anglo-Saxon destinations such as the United States and the United Kingdom.  It has almost 300,000 international students according to an OECD report and the number has been in crescendo since the late 90’s. Most of these students are from African countries to start, representing more than 40% of international non-European students. About 23% of them come from Asia and the Middle East, while around 10% are from from North and South America. International students coming from non-European countries (out of the Schengen area) have to deal with the Prefecture de Police to obtain a temporary residency card, which is called Titre de Séjour. The process is ‘’long, stressing and very unpleasant’’, as described by Yael Caux, the RUSF responsible from Sorbonne Paris 1 University.  Réseau Universités Sans Frontières  is a national network present in some French universities, and it’s a  benevolent association of students and teachers. The network has had a recent success after the Circulaire Gueant passed last year: this was a ministerial decision approved in May 31st 2011 that banned non-European students to access any job position in France once they graduated. The new government abolished this measure, even though many principles have been kept to exclude international students from an important part of their civil rights, responding to an electoral strategy.

Meeting Yael

Yael is a young graduate in history, and she has been volunteering for Réseau Universités Sans Frontières for three years now.  She helps international students (not Erasmus) to face problems in obtaining their papers; she supports them by answering their questions and following the whole Prefecture de Police process. RUSF offers – when needed – judicial assistance to some students that have to face court because their papers have been denied. She says that most of the time these students come with a friend or even a family member, because they don’t know what to expect, they are confused and fear the administration most of the time. These students sometimes have troubles in communicating, because they don’t necessarily speak fluent French; that is one of the main problems when facing police agents who refuse to speak any other language than French for example. In the police station students are refused the right to have an interpreter!

Why a network “sans frontières” (without borders)?

“When students are in classrooms, teachers don’t address to their audience as “you are French, you are not, you are a foreigner…” and that’s why we are trying to ensure that the administration treats all of them equally as well, which is not the case with all Prefectures. They ask for example for the grades’ record and the regular attendance to classes, as they judge like this: “you study, you are a good student; if  you don’t, you are not good enough”. It’s not for the police agents to judge by these criteria…”

What are the objectives of the network? What are your personal objectives?

“Well we are first trying to make sure that all the universities take care of these students. It is not normal that foreign students are completely abandoned to face administration challenges; it is the university that has to take care of their status. The second objective is that other students, mainly the French ones (and teachers) realize what these students have to face and support them if necessary.”

What are the requirements to obtain a Titre de Séjour?

“After obtaining a long stay visa (1 year) in the French Embassy in their country of origin, international students have to renew their residency card every year, explaining each time their project and justifying resources and housing. It is the same process every time… But the worst part of it is the time they lose… Also the judgments are sometimes unexplained; for example, there was this girl on her 6th year of research for her thesis, and the prefecture refused to renew her papers, as they found 6 years were too long! So her academic referee agreed to go with her to talk to them and explain that she was actually working on her thesis even if it took time, but that she was advancing. They went together and had to wait for a long time. The teacher was shocked that they had to wait several hours even if they had an appointment!” 

This process has been the same since the 18th century in France, when the first records of international passport controls date from!  The French historian G. Noiriel explains the history of passport in France, which was necessary for foreigners to move inside French territory. This document’s purpose was simply to control homeless and “socially dangerous” people. Travelers back in the days had to justify where were they staying, for how long and how they would pay for it. But what has changed about it today? These mechanisms of control are still the same and they certainly are a sure way of refusing integration of international students if they must submit them every year. So are international students considered to be “socially dangerous”? These students are not only constantly haunted by the whole papers procedure; they are also denied an important part of their civil rights. When the Titre de Séjour expires, the student gets a document with a renewal date; between the time the card has expired and the renewal appointment, months can pass and during that time he/she becomes a second zone citizen! While the student doesn’t have a card but a paper instead, he/she cannot freely leave the country (or come back) or continue working in France! The paper doesn’t give you the same status as the card does. How unbearable is that in a country that has for so long fought for equal rights for all its citizens? “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité[1] is the country’s motto and part of its revolutionary heritage, but is it still a solid value? Also there are many students who are denied permission to stay in the country. Their status is illegal (sans papiers): they can attend classes, but don’t even have the right to be covered by social security, which they are actually obliged to pay along with the university fees. Instead they can receive a state’s medical care, but some of them are not even aware of that reality![2] How is such a contradiction of their rights even possible? The worst is that there are several of them living in that context fearing to be sent back home in the first plane if they are caught by the French Police… Immigration is highly stigmatized in France and the extreme right has seized that and has become stronger since the last elections. The National Front, the extreme right party, is very popular among young people; they must certainly be scared of not being able to find a job. It is a direct consequence of an important part of French media influence, which is constantly discrediting foreigners, and almost blaming them for the economic crisis.  As for politicians - not only from the extreme right, but also from center-right (Sarkozy’s political party the UMP) -, they associate foreigners, criminals and Islamists and put them in the same package.

Finally, immigration is a very important part of European history; it is also one of the reasons of its rich cultural heritage. Today immigration is necessary as well as beneficial, the OECD report establishes: research in France is mainly in the hands of international students. Only at PhD level, international young people represent more than 40% of the registered students. The problem is that we are not going to reach neither respect nor tolerance in today’s society without accepting the fact that we are different and that cultural diversity is one of today’s main values. Cultural diversity must be encouraged as it will no doubt make our vision of the world wider and better. The UNESCO signed the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity in 2001, establishing that identity, diversity and pluralism is a common heritage of humanity. A country like France should definitely condemn any attempts at discrediting these principles.

[1] Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

[2] Yael insisted that this is because the system is very complex and encourages misunderstandings on the part of foreign students.   

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