Managing in France
Working in a Culturally Rich Country
France is a country that really lives up to its reputation.
It offers some of the world's best cuisine, finest art, and most sophisticated wine. It has won more Nobel Prizes for Literature than any other country, and it boasts some of the world's most iconic landmarks. A quick trip out to the countryside demonstrates a strong contrast with bustling city life; lavender farms and vineyards dot the landscape, and life slows down dramatically.
If you're relocating to France, you might be dreaming of sidewalk cafes, baguettes, and museums. You might also be excited about the challenge of managing a French team.
In this article, we'll examine the culture, manners, and etiquette of French people, and we'll look at what you can do to get the best from your French team.
France's culture is diverse, and this article is meant as a general guide only. Each person and region is unique – treat people as individuals, and use your best judgment when working with your French team.
Country and Customs
France is the largest country in Western Europe in terms of land area, and it has the sixth-largest economy in the world (the third-largest in Europe). It's also the world's most popular tourist destination, with more than 88 million visitors each year.
The French Alps line the border with Italy and Switzerland, and the Pyrenees establish the southern border with Spain; these regions are known for their world-class hiking and skiing trails.
Customs and values vary depending on where you are in the country. France is often divided into a northern province, which many people view as more formal and precise, and a southern region, which many see as more open, flexible, and casual, especially when you get closer to the coast.
France is well-known for its culinary delights. The country produces 300 to 400 different types of cheese, and, each year, bottles more than seven billion bottles of wine. Without a doubt, food and cooking are great passions for many French people.
France is the largest country in Western Europe.
English is likely to be understood in major cities and popular tourist areas, but it would help to know a few useful phrases before you travel.
|English||French||Pronunciation (emphasis in bold)|
|Hello (please, ... )||Bonjour (s'il vous plaît, ... )||Bawnnzhoor (seel voo play)|
|Goodbye||Au revoir||Oh rervwar|
|Thank you (you're welcome)||Merci (de rien)||Mairsee (de ree-en)|
|My name is ...||Je m'appelle...||Zher mappell|
|How are you?||Comment allez-vous?||Kommahng tallay voo|
|Do you speak English?||Parlez-vous anglais?||Pahrlay voo ahng-glay|
|I don't speak French||Je ne parle pas francais||Zher ner parl pa frahngsay|
|I don't understand||Je ne comprends pas||Zher ner kawmprahng pa|
|Excuse me||Excusez-moi||Exkewzay mwah|
|Where is ... ?||Ou est ...?||Oo ay ...?|
French labor laws are strict and often complex. All labor laws are defined in the "Code du Travail," a book of 3,200 rules that defines everything from hiring and firing to job classifications.
All employees must have a signed contract from their employer before they begin work. There are two types of contract:
- CDD (Fixed-Term Contract) – A fixed-term contract is often used to cover an absent or sick employee, or it's used for short-term or temporary jobs. A CDD contract can last for up to 18 months. Employees who work under a CDD contract earn a 10 percent bonus for employment insecurity.
- CDI (Open-Ended Contract) – The CDI is the most common contract because it has no fixed time frame. The CDI must include basic information, such as the identity of the two parties involved, place of work, position, working hours, annual leave, and compensation.
France offers generous maternity leave. Women are guaranteed six weeks' leave (with a paid allowance) before the birth, and 10 weeks afterward. Leave increases to a total of 24 weeks after the birth of a third child. Fathers can take 11 days of paternity leave.
Hiring and Firing
Many of the country's strictest labor laws apply to companies with more than 50 people. As such, chances are high that you'll work for an organization with fewer than 50 people; many organizations will start a new company rather than go above this threshold.
France's labor laws also make it difficult for organizations to dismiss people when they're showing a profit, even when these people are misbehaving or are not meeting performance expectations. French courts have the power to overturn firing decisions, even years after they were made; and not following the law can result in a prison sentence.
Before hiring or firing anyone, consult with your boss – or with your organization's HR team – to ensure that you're following the correct procedure, as hiring mistakes are often difficult and costly to rectify.
Vacations and Holidays
All French workers, regardless of rank or position, receive at least five weeks' vacation time each year. Many people take extended vacations during July and August; as a result, many businesses close at this time of year.
In addition, France observes several national holidays:
- New Year's Day – January 1.
- Easter Monday – Date changes each year (April 22 in 2019).
- Labor Day/May Day – May 1.
- WW2 Victory Day – May 8.
- Ascension Day – Date changes each year (May 30 in 2019).
- Whit Monday (Pentecost) – Date changes each year (June 10 in 2019).
- Bastille Day – July 14.
- Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – August 15.
- All Saints' Day – November 1.
- Armistice Day – November 11.
- Christmas Day – December 25.
Some places in France observe regional holidays and festivals. Make sure that you're aware of local customs, and avoid scheduling a meeting, trip, or deadline during a regional holiday.
Getting the Best From Your Team
Relationships are very important in France. As your team members may not be familiar with your contacts and credentials at the start, they might keep you at a distance.
To build trust with your French team members, avoid being overly chatty, and don't ask about their families or discuss other personal issues. This could be considered overly familiar or overbearing, and it's likely to alienate them. You'll earn your team members' respect by being professional, gracious and courteous.
French people respect hierarchy, rank and position. As such, your team will respect your position and will closely follow any rules or instructions that you give it. Native French managers gain their team members' trust by sticking up for them in front of superiors and by treating them like family – follow their lead.
Don't be afraid to ask for your team members' opinions; they may or may not let you know how they feel about an issue or decision. Younger French professionals are more likely to speak up, while older professionals might be happier to follow your instructions. Keep in mind that this is only a generalization; watch how other leaders consult with their team members, and use your own best judgment when dealing with your team.
Debate is welcome in France; during meetings, don't be surprised if people debate issues and problems hotly, and for an extended period. Because knowledge and education are highly valued, back up your arguments with facts and logic.
Keep in mind that while French people are often comfortable with risk, they'll usually go out of their way to avoid a failure or an embarrassing situation. If you need to give your team members feedback, do so behind closed doors to help them avoid "losing face."
Although the working week in France is only 35 hours long, most people start late (around 9 a.m. or later). However, many people like to ease into their day by spending the first hour reading emails and preparing for tasks or meetings. You'll get along better with your team by respecting this custom; if you need to speak with someone on your team, wait until 10 a.m., if possible.
Last, the French appreciate hard work, but they also appreciate personal time. When your team members leave work, they're on their own time. Don't call or email them at home unless it's an emergency. Since January 2017, they may have the legal "right to disconnect."
Most French people are proud of their language, and the majority conduct business in French. English is widely spoken, but try to learn some French before you arrive; your team members will appreciate your efforts to speak their language. Before asking for help or advice, preface your request with an apology for not speaking French; this will go a long way in establishing goodwill.
The French admire good conversationalists, and intellect and wit are valuable assets. Brush up on local and national news and culture, so that people see you as knowledgeable about French affairs.
Food and Dining
Food is important to the French, and most people take a long midday break to eat. You'll fit in with your new team if you observe this custom, too. Don't eat at your desk or take a short lunch, and avoid requesting a "working lunch" from your team.
It's customary to drink wine during meals; to decline politely, turn your wine glass upside down on the table. If you initiate a lunch with your colleagues or with a client, they'll expect you to pay.
It's also a good idea to learn French table manners and dining etiquette; this is especially important if you're attending a formal dinner or a meal at a colleague's home. Not observing basic rules will offend others, and it may damage your reputation.
- Never put your hands below the table – they should rest on the table at all times when not holding a utensil. However, keep your elbows off the table.
- Bread is always served with a meal, and it should be placed on the tablecloth, not on your plate. Never take a bite from the whole piece of bread; tear it into bite-sized pieces first. If you're using bread to soak up sauce on your plate, use a fork, not your fingers.
- If you're invited into a colleague's home for dinner, never wander around the house or ask for a tour. Don't sit down until your host indicates where they want you seated at the table. Use the restroom before dinner begins, as it's considered impolite to leave the table once the meal has started. The best rule of thumb is to follow the lead of your hostess: drink and eat only after she has.
- Try to eat everything on your plate, and at least taste everything that's offered to you. It's often best to take small portions as they're passed around; this will ensure that you don't fill up, as most French meals have several courses.
A good understanding of French manners will strengthen your reputation and your relationships. Although there's a lot to remember, do your best to learn dining etiquette; it's a fascinating part of French culture, and it could open many doors for you once you arrive.
Making a good impression in France starts with your appearance. People will judge you on what you wear and how you look, so invest in good, classically cut clothing. Your accessories are also important, so pay attention to the quality of your shoes, watch, and stationery. Women should focus on their handbag and their makeup (which should be light).
The French sometimes introduce themselves with their last name first. If you're not sure of a person's name, ask to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding.
Gifts are appropriate, especially if you're invited to a colleague's home for dinner. Bring high-quality chocolates or flowers; wine is acceptable if you understand exactly what you're bringing and you can talk about it with your hosts. Never give anything with your company logo on it: it's considered garish, and it will damage your reputation.
Punctuality is important in France. Never arrive more than 10 minutes late to a dinner engagement. You should aim to arrive on time for meetings; however, don't be surprised if the meeting starts 30 minutes or more late.
To get the best from your French team, avoid making jokes or asking personal questions. Instead, stay professional and courteous at all times. Stick up for your team members, and treat them as family as you get to know them better.
Most French professionals love to debate; allow your team members time to discuss the issue at hand. However, as their manager, you will usually have the final say in all decisions.
Food and table manners are important; do your best to learn the ins and outs of dining etiquette, so that you don't offend others. Good manners will also strengthen your reputation and your relationships.