TMF Group tips for doing business in France

The French national holiday known as Bastille Day commemorates the storming of the Bastille fortress and prison in 1789. It is a celebration of the principles of France: fraternity, equality and liberty. As we mark Bastille Day 2015 our Commercial Director in Paris shares her top business etiquette tips for companies looking to expand into the country.

Speak French, or make sure you have a business partner who can

The French are usually pretty good at reading English, but not everyone is great at speaking it – it’s definitely not a country in which you can take English for granted.

I had a basic understanding of French at the start of my career, and this increased to virtual fluency after working in Belgium for a number of years, and marrying a Frenchman! 

If you don’t speak French yourself, do at least try to get down the basics as it will be appreciated. And you will make doing business in France so very much easier by partnering with a company  such as TMF Group, that has French speakers/local staff who have a thorough understanding of how business should be done.

Expect a strong vertical hierarchy

Companies are very hierarchical in France compared to other countries that I have worked in such as the Netherlands. This means those in a company don’t necessarily collectively take ownership and responsibility, instead there is usually always someone in a higher position to refer decision making to.

This can result in some difficulty doing business, particularly when it comes to obtaining permits or moving tasks forward on a government level. Here especially, having access to local, established relationships with bodies such as the tax authority becomes important.

Take a different approach to negotiation

I have found the French do not approach negotiation in the same way as the Dutch for example. I am used to very tough negotiating, especially around pricing, whereas in France you could say it is easier though there is a bit of science behind it. The French language is not very clear, and in my early years I sometimes wondered what I should be reading between the lines – is what x person has just said positive or negative? What did they mean by this?

It leads me back to the first point, have a local partner who speaks French! I am fortunate in that I straddle both the Latin-oriented and Anglo-Saxon worlds, and it is one of the reasons why I believe I have been so successful; I can tell clients honestly why I personally think something may or may not work in France.

Embrace the long lunch

Business is absolutely done over lunch in France – but I always say it is 10 minutes business, and 80 minutes other talk. It’s part of the networking process and nurturing your informal relationship in order to better position yourself when it does come to talking out those big decisions.

Depending on who you are lunching with, it can be important to choose a very good restaurant, and do try to take a glass of wine as it is appreciated. The French see a meal as a social event that is to be savoured and enjoyed in good company.

Don’t expect to make much progress during August

It’s vacation time in France (and most of Europe), Parisians leave the city and the tourists move in. Public administrations close along with shops - even my favourite local restaurants will shut for a break! And naturally over periods when business slows down it is rare for companies to be making major decisions.

Respect French culture

It’s a bit of a no-brainer but obviously the French are very proud of their culture, and the more you embrace it the more successful you will be. From double-cheek kissing as a greeting (even people you hardly know) to the regular strikes which, from a business perspective can feel quite disruptive, but the public are very accepting of them.

In France it’s not uncommon for worker strikes to be held before or during employer-employee negotiations as opposed to the ‘usual,’ which is strike action being called at the point where talks have broken down.

The long French tradition of taking to the streets is of course a legacy of the French Revolution, the beginning of which is commemorated on Bastille Day (along with the storming of the Bastille).

French business used to be quite internally focussed as the country is a market by itself, and so France was seen as ‘closed shop.’ But the environment is steadily opening as this new generation of professionals take a much more global view.

Looking to expand your business into France? Get in touch with our local experts.

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