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Does France really suffer from a brain drain?

Joshua Melvin · 29 Aug 2014, 09:54

Published: 29 Aug 2014 09:54 GMT+02:00

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France’s record unemployment and flat economic growth has led elements of the media and certain politicians among the opposition to worry their best and the brightest are fleeing for greener pastures abroad.

One of the most frequently repeated concern is that with a youth unemployment rate hovering around 25 percent, many college grads in France are packing up and heading across the Channel or the Atlantic or to Asia to get their first jobs, perhaps never to return.

However, new figures from the European Union show France has nearly broken even in the past decade when it comes gaining and losing workers in certain regulated fields like education, medicine, nursing and law.

The figures say France gained 7,099 foreign workers in regulated fields from 2003-2014. A total of 8,986 applied, but French authorities only certified the credentials of 79 percent of them.

On the other hand 9,885 French workers in regulated industries applied to have their certification approved for work in a foreign country. It’s unclear however, how many were given the green light to practice their profession abroad, but it shows they were trying to make a life outside France, with the UK and Belgium the most popular countries.

To put these numbers into perspective France had some 253,000 workers just in the fields of law, accounting, building trades and engineering fields in 2010, according to France national statistics agency INSEE.

SEE ALSO: 'France has a lot to offer, but we're all depressed'

It’s important to note the 253,000 figure doesn’t include hundreds of thousands of educators, doctors, nurses and other regulated professions.

However, the amount of mobility into and out of France for these specialized workers is dwarfed by what's been happening in Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom over the same period.

From 2003-2014 Britain had 77,887 foreign doctors, teachers, nurses and others apply to work there, while 21,519 of its own specialized people made a move to go abroad during the same period. It was a similar story in Switzerland, which pulled in 24,150 professionals after just 2,541 from its trained workforce applied to go abroad.

Germany saw 39,373 foreign professionals in the specified fields apply to work in the country while 29,670 took steps to head abroad.

So while the movement into and out of France was much lighter, the stats suggest that the country is not proving as attractive as its European neighbours, in certain professions at least.  

The French expat population is booming, with an estimated 1.5 - 2 million qualified and able-bodied French people calling a country other than their own, home. The number has been increasing by three to four percent per year over the last decade, according to a new study from the Paris Île-de-France Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

That means some 60,000-80,000 French people head through the departure gates each year. And they plan to stay away longer and longer, with about 38 percent of French expats, up from 27 percent in 2008, expecting they’ll be abroad for more than a decade.

A common line pushed in the media and by right wing politicians is that Frances high taxes are pushing the French to flee to the exits.

But Fabienne Petit director of international activities at French firm Humanis said it's a myth.

“It’s a real cliché to say that all French people are going abroad for only fiscal reasons. In fact only 17 percent of people leave for financial reasons, so we need to put an end to this myth,” Petit told The Local.

At an event this year for French nationals thinking of heading abroad, civil servant Isabelle Moreau, 50, told The Local she was leaving France to escape the depressed mood.

Story continues below…

"We have a lot going for us here, but we’re depressed. I feel like my career is stuck in France," she said. "There’s a real lack of opportunity here. Not only that but it seems the government is going to keep pushing up the retirement age. Soon you are going to work until you are 70 years old,” she said. 

“I want to be able to retire earlier, and if I go to the United States I can start collecting my retirement five years earlier. Basically, the minimum age drops to 62 if I go the US,” she said. “There’s nothing left to do but find a job.”

Though the new EU figures aren't great news for France, they still could have been much worse. Spain, for example, marked a net loss of 11,332 regulated workers in the past decade.

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

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