Doing business in France

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France is known the world over for its cuisine, fashion, culture and language. It is a key player on the global stage and a country at the political heart of Europe. It plays an influential global role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, NATO, the G-7, the G-20, the EU, and other multilateral organisations.

France has a population of 68 million which also includes the five overseas regions of French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte and Réunion.

The French economy is diversified across all sectors. The government has partially or fully privatised many large companies, including Air France, France Telecom, Renault, and Thales. However, the government maintains a strong presence in some sectors, particularly power, public transport, and defence industries. 25% of French employees are civil servants.

Business culture in France

There is a greater use of formal titles and respect of hierarchy in France. It is normal for colleagues of the same level to use the informal form of ‘you’ (tu). However, if you are a new employee in France, wait until people ask for you to address them in a more casual manner. In the beginning, address your managers starting with ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’ followed by the person’s last name. If it does not seem awkward, you can call people by their first names, but continue to address them by the formal form of ‘you’ (vous) until invited to use the informal form. Nevertheless, if your manager is in the presence of his/her boss or another important person, revert to formal language (using Monsieur/Madame and the person’s last name, as well as ‘vous’).

When preparing for meetings, circulate any reports for pre-reading and study. Your French colleagues usually prepare quite thoroughly and will read background information and analysis for important meetings. Whilst an agenda is produced, they may depart from it as the discussions develop.

Unlike the UK, latecomers do not just slip in quietly and sit in the nearest seat – rather they shake hands with everyone present and then sit down. In France, the formal meeting is not always the place to debate ideas, rather it’s to agree on what has already been decided in pre-meetings. In formal meetings it is uncommon to contradict the boss openly – this may have been done elsewhere, prior to the meeting, in more informal lobbying sessions. In such an environment, it is important to be actively involved in the pre-meeting lobbying if you want any influence on the outcome.

Having a logical, rational and well-reasoned argument is valued in France. They will engage in ‘le grand débat’. Each participant should offer a distinctive point of view. Compromise can be viewed negatively as it implies that a position was not well reasoned. It is important to decide not necessarily how or whether something will work, but rather why it might not, and if an existing approach is indeed best. It leads to comments such as ‘Yes, this might work, but…’; ‘What happens if we do/don’t do it this way?’ or even ‘Non c’est impossible’ which often means ‘start convincing me’.

The reliance on the word ‘non’ doesn’t mean the French are a fundamentally negative people, either. In part, their approach starts at school. French children learn to argue a thesis, antithesis and synthesis when preparing essays, which teaches them to argue their point, argue against their own argument, then develop a summary. Consequently, French businesspeople intuitively conduct meetings in this fashion, viewing conflict as stimulating fresh thinking. In fact, the French ‘non’ is often an invitation to debate, engage and better understand one another.

As a culture, the French can be more risk-averse without detailed analysis and all the facts. Whilst time is important, there is greater reluctance to agree to a timeframe with only 80% of the facts available when logically it is possible to get the full 100%. This results in a preference to miss a deadline and provide a better result. Whilst regular reporting is seen as part of normal business process to be carried out in many countries, the French do not like reporting for reporting’s sake. They believe that over reporting can detract from seeing what is really going on in the business.

Upon meeting a friend or someone in a social context, the French give ‘la bise’ which is a kiss on each cheek. Women greet both men and women this way, although men generally only greet women this way unless they are close friends or related to the man. When you come upon a group of friends or acquaintances in a social meeting, it is important to greet each person in the group with ‘the bise’ and it is considered rude if you fail to do so. However, in a work setting, you generally do not greet your co-workers or managers in this way, unless it is a very informal office.

Finally, praise is seldom given spontaneously. Competence is presumed and overt praise is deemed unnecessary. In performance reviews, on a scale of 1-20, an excellent French score is 16. Brilliant may get 17. Receiving a 3 on a scale from 1-5 is comfortable to a French worker, but other cultures may feel upset by this tough grading.

Alternative Description

Inspired? If you want to learn how you can work more effectively with your French colleagues, clients or supplier, contact us for a 'Doing business in France' sample course outline'.

Alternatively, we also provide French language training, from beginners to advanced or for those who need to immerse themselves before an assignment, we offer residential training too.

Want to learn more?  Read our case study that highlights the benefits of providing language training, take our language quiz to find out what type of learner you are and read our top tips for how to speak with an international English speaker.


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