Advocating for more immigration is certainly not fashionable in France. However, this is what a group of economists, in which we took part, is doing in a very recent note from the Economic Analysis Council (CAE), an organization reporting to the Prime Minister and whose mission is to “shed light, through the confrontation of points of view and analyses, the government’s choices in economic matters”.
Following collaborative work including other economists, undertaken since September 2020, the note concludes that immigration to France is less qualified, less diversified and less numerous than that of other developed countries.
The authors thus return to the contrast between a public debate dominated by questions of identity and security, and an increasingly solid scientific consensus on the positive economic effects of immigration, especially those on long-term economic growth.
Among these effects, those which pass through the links between immigration and innovation are the subject of a focus accompanying the note, which summarizes the results of the most recent international studies and provides an update on France (other focuses deepen the relationship between migration and public finances or the labor market, as well as the economic impact of welcoming refugees).
How can immigration support innovation in host countries? Empirical evidence points to three mechanisms. The first is that of the transfer of knowledge, which has been the subject of many historical studies: the migratory movements of more or less assertive scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have always played a key role in the dissemination of technical knowledge, allowing host countries either to catch up with the countries of origin or to maintain their leadership by taking advantage of all opportunities for innovation.
Second, highly skilled young migrants – especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields – complete the labor supply of natives, which often does not suffice to satisfy the demand of sectors with higher research and development (R&D). Among these migrants, there are indeed a large proportion of foreign students, who both support the higher education system of the host country (especially in STEM disciplines) and can integrate into the labor market.
Finally, migration is a source of diversity within R&D teams, as well as companies and in large urban centres, which several studies associate with greater creativity and more innovation. In this field, international mobility within multinational companies plays a role as remarkable as that characterizing global scientific networks.
How does France benefit from this international talent mobility? At first glance, France is very well placed, being, according to OECD data, among the top five destination countries for international students, behind the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and neck and neck with Germany. The same observation applies to scientists, especially in the academic field: our evaluations, based on ORCID data, suggest that the weight of immigrants on the total number of scientific authors (STEM and non-STEM) is almost the same in France as in the United States and the United Kingdom; and that it continues to increase, despite changes before the year 2000 (figure 1).
However, when we move on to indicators closer to innovation, the picture darkens. In Figure 2, we see that the weight of foreign inventors in international patents filed by French companies and other organizations remains much more limited than in the United States, the United Kingdom or Canada. On this indicator, France has also just been overtaken by Germany.
The observation is the same with regard to patent filings by universities, which suggests that the international presence among students and scientists active on French soil does not result in a contribution to innovation comparable to that of ‘other countries. Where does this paradox come from?
Canadian “point system”
The note and the focus of the CAE put forward various complementary explanations. Among them, we find in particular the weaker STEM orientation of foreign students in France due to an attraction policy that aims to strengthen the Francophonie rather than competitiveness. In addition, a lack of coordination between university and migration policies complicates access to the labor market for foreign graduates in France.
In this regard, surveys conducted by the working group on higher education of the Center for Studies and Research on Qualifications (Céreq) indicate that, over the past 20 years, the proportion of foreign doctoral students in France has increased 27% to 42%, but also that nearly 40% of foreign graduates return home after graduation.
Based on this observation, the CAE note makes several recommendations for the reform of migration policies in France, most of which explicitly aim to strengthen highly qualified immigration and to place the higher education system at its center. Among them, the note proposes to intensify the concession of “talent passports”, while targeting certain countries which have a surplus of young graduates and remain poorly represented among the countries of origin of immigrants in France.
The note also suggests increasing the attractiveness of French higher education in the eyes of foreign students. Similarly, it is a question of facilitating the transition from studies to employment by extending the granting of a residence permit at the end of studies, in particular for highly qualified persons, without adding to it, as currently, minimum wage criteria, or adequacy of work to qualifications.
Finally, the note advocates the introduction in France of a “points system” inspired by the Canadian model, which gives more weight to the human capital of immigration candidates and their spouses. This system is based on indicators measured by level of education, experience and language skills), in addition to the usual criteria such as personal and family ties, or a job offer.
It is not a question of replacing current migrants with others. This would not help, because the volume of immigration to France is already low (292,000 entrants in 2019, or 0.41% of its population, where the European and OECD average is 0, 85%; with an aging stock of residents abroad that does not exceed 13%, compared to 13.6% in the United States, 13.7% in the United Kingdom and 16.1% in Germany). It is rather a question of enriching its composition by country and qualifications, based on the observation that immigration, far from being a socio-economic burden, constitutes a powerful source of innovation and growth.