“Everything that is learnt here will eventually serve our nation,” proclaimed an upbeat François Hollande to a noticeably young audience in an address held at the start of this year. But the French president’s speech was not at a high school in Paris, a library in Bordeaux, or a university in Grenoble—it took place thousands of miles away in San Francisco, where a large group of his countrymen had stuffed an auditorium to listen to their visiting leader. Mr. Hollande’s visit, the first by a French head of state to the city since 1984, was underpinned by the growing size and prominence of the city’s 60,000-strong French community, populated mostly by entrepreneurs and technical experts. His efforts were rather well rewarded: The audience maintained an enthused and receptive presence that could only be hoped for at home, where the president’s tumbling popularity has been marked with a record-low approval rating of 13 percent as well as a string of electoral defeats of his Socialist Party to conservatives.
As anyone familiar with French media coverage of the past few years would note, Mr. Hollande’s warm reception by his compatriots would not be possible back at home, reflecting a concerning development: the rising number of highly skilled French émigrés leaving home to take up lucrative professional opportunities across North America and in other parts of Europe. But although a steady stream of articles and studies has kept this subject firmly in the French spotlight and highlighted a definite trend, a more careful analysis of the relative size, permanence, and net impact of emigration from France remains warranted.
Recent statistics calculated by the Maison des Français de l’Etranger, the government branch of the Ministry of External Affairs tasked with maintaining relations with expatriates, have shed some light on the issue of expatriation as a whole. According to these figures, the French diaspora, currently estimated at 2 million people, has been growing at a rate between 3 and 4 percent each year during the past decade, and currently adds 80,000 members to its ranks every year. By comparison, growth in the domestic population over the same period reached only about 0.6 percent per year. Additionally, the data not only indicates that the emigrant community is growing impressively, but also that, for the most part, it has overwhelmingly been composed of highly trained and technically proficient individuals. In contrast with the 12.5 percent of the domestic population holding advanced educational degrees, around half of expatriates possess a master’s or doctoral degree and are primarily employed in fields such as research, technology, or entrepreneurship. Those numbers have pointed to France’s most eligible graduates leaving home, sparking alarm in the country.
The periodic release of figures such as those from the Maison des Français de l’Etranger are accompanied by a splash of articles and reactions across major publications and media outlets such as Le Monde and Le Nouvel Economiste, contemplating the loss of French talent, the emergence of a French “brain drain,” and even the existence of a country of emigrants. To add to the media clamor around the subject, a growing number of think tanks, consultancies, and research organizations have also started weighing in on the issue, and offering their own estimates of the problem. This past year, consulting firm Deloitte produced a report claiming that close to 27 percent of recently graduated French students envisioned their futures overseas, while PricewaterhouseCoopers stated that the French emigrant population will most likely swell to double its present size by 2020. Meanwhile, the not-for-profit Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris published its own report estimating that 38 percent of new graduates hope to spend more than ten years of their life outside France.
Perhaps the clearest sign yet of the attention surrounding the issue is the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the “Exile of Human Capital” headed by Luc Chatel, who belongs to the opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. The commission, established in April and backed by the French National Assembly, is charged with investigating the scale of expatriation of French persons and enterprises. It is also tasked with suggesting long-term measures that could reverse such trends, if they are found to be significant. However, any potential solutions will first have to confront many of the fears over French emigration brought up by the reams of newspapers columns and piles of reports on the subject. The diagnoses offered by many of these sources appear just as dire as the scale of the issue that they suggest, falling into a morose introspection of the state of affairs in France. Some articles entertain the notion that France is no longer capable of producing enough well-paying and stimulating employment opportunities for its youth because of a stagnating economic model that has (depending on political affiliation) either been too deeply entrenched in leftist-thought or has shifted too far to the right. Others lament a rigid hierarchy in France that only guarantees success for well-connected graduates emerging from Les Grandes Écoles (top-tier French universities) and not for the larger number of French graduates in the population. And a third category of complaints criticizes a culture that doesn’t pay enough attention to work and professional success, nor compensates it appropriately, forcing France’s most ambitious to leave for greener pastures. All of these hypotheses find a commonality in their evocation of déclinisme, the pejorative title for the increasingly pervasive idea that the French nation has entered a long stage of diminishing importance and capability on the world stage, and is now consigned to the rank of older nations that no longer play a primary role in world affairs. The loss of French talent to other countries plays appropriately into this narrative, and regardless of the veracity of such a theory, the linkage of the two ideas has certainly influenced a number of those who write about the issue.
Although such pessimism and critical analysis seems contagious, as a number of more nuanced articles have pointed out, there is much more to be made of the situation. It is not just a gloomy story of terminal national decline. The scale of French emigration may be unprecedented in recent times, but it must be put into perspective and balanced against countervailing factors. To begin, any discussion about emigration must be prefaced with a discussion of the recent financial crisis that has taken a heavy toll on the French economy. The lingering effects of the crisis continue to haunt the country as the unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, while the youth unemployment is more than double the average rate at 24 percent. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that fresh graduates qualified enough to find high paying employment overseas would leave, but it is also true that they should return to France as conditions gradually improve. Additionally, whether the current outflow of French workers was spurred by the crisis or occurred of its own accord, it seems in part to be an overdue reaction to the forces of the increasingly globalized world of today. With large multinational corporations transferring employees across different continents, students pursuing degrees far away from home, and researchers collaborating on projects at foreign institutions at an ever-increasing pace, an increase in the number of professionals leaving France is a natural reaction to a more connected world.
Indeed, on closer inspection, France’s emigrant community is still significantly smaller than those of its closest neighbors in Europe: While only 3 percent of France’s population is estimated to live overseas, Britain counts roughly 7.6 percent of its population as expatriates, while the figure is 6.0 percent and 5.2 percent for Italy and Germany, respectively. Although the rate of emigration may have picked up in recent years, it is still a much smaller phenomenon in France than in the country’s geographic peers, some of which have been performing better economically. Furthermore, the destinations of French emigrants is telling: Nearly half choose to relocate close to home in Western European countries such as Belgium, Switzerland, and Germany, while 15 percent have settled in North America. As a consequence, the recent increase of emigration may also be seen through the lens of an increasingly deregulated labor mobility in the Eurozone, and also as a trend that could very well change direction, as economic and political situations shift.
Lastly, France’s popularity with immigrants—both skilled and unskilled—cannot be ignored. According to a study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the country is the third largest destination for students seeking a foreign education, and the fourth most attractive destination for highly qualified professionals. This study indicates, that, for the time being, France should be more than able to fill its requirements for skilled employment, even if it means relying on immigrant labor rather than of French graduates. In fact, at the other end of the debate on the subject, some would even go as far as to say that France’s recent uptick in expatriation may be beneficial for the country as a whole. In the spirit of Mr. Hollande’s San Francisco speech, one imagines that France’s overseas community can help transmit new ideas, innovations, and cultural attitudes back home to a country that, as data has shown, has not necessarily been as exposed to global trends as some of its neighbors. Secondly, the success of French emigrants in various high-value sectors can boost the profile of French universities and laboratories overseas, paving the way for more collaborations and international exchanges. Finally, the fewer domestic graduates that apply for French jobs, the more inviting France becomes for highly skilled immigrants from other countries, further increasing the global exchange of talent.
In regard to this balance, the report from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Paris notes in its conclusion: “the idea of a massive outflow of talents, specific to France, doesn’t seem to correspond to [today’s] reality.” Any claims of France becoming a country of emigrants, or being completely deserted by the present generation, seem hyperbolic and unrealistic when weighed against general global trends, and ignorant of the benefits of increased global exposure for France’s youth. But while media reports that continue to make such proclamations in the face of more detailed analysis of the situation should be dismissed as sensationalist, their fears cannot be completely ignored. President Hollande and his government should not be complacent enough to leave the entire task of “learning” and job creation for French graduates to other countries. Though the crisis seems to have normalized the rates of expatriation for France, an economy that continues to stagnate for a prolonged period of time risks pushing the level of expatriation beyond the threshold of what is beneficial, and may even harm France’s access to immigrant labor. Cognizant that France will gain from the experiences of its citizens who have lived overseas, Mr. Hollande must now create an atmosphere that promises to welcome them whenever they may be ready to return. If not, the sensationalism of some of today’s newspaper columns may ring true in the years ahead. •