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Joie de vivre

Debate and differences of opinion are encouraged in France. On the Job takes a look at how our Gallic neighbours do things... 

As the largest Western European country France encompasses a wealth of landscapes and identities influenced by an amalgamation of cultural and historical differences. It is a modern and diverse nation and takes immense pride in its history and culture. This strong cultural identity plays a crucial role in French business dealings and means that appropriate conduct, mutual trust and understanding are the key to success.

The French business market boasts a variety of international investors and is an important world supplier of agricultural and industrial products. The country also demonstrates one of the highest rates of economic growth in Europe. One aspect of the culture that has a major influence on business is the country's attention to rules and regulations. The French have a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and are reluctant to take risks.

France has a long and notable history of centralisation reflected in its geography, transportation system, government and business. This outlook originated in the power and authority of the early monarchs and remains a significant part of the French democratic presidency today. This idea of centralisation spills over into the world of business where authority and decision making generally lie with one individual.

Structure and hierarchy
Business organisations are highly organised and well-structured. Consequently, rules and administrative practices are favoured over effectiveness or flexibility. There is a strong, vertical hierarchy in French business culture and emphasis is placed on social status and being judged as an individual. French bosses generally take a dictatorial and authoritative approach. Of course, it is important that you work successfully with all levels of the business organisation, but be aware that only the highest individual in authority can make the final decision.

Building trust
Working relationships must be formed first before business can begin. Lunch is the best place to forge such relationships, but allow your host to initiate discussion of business topics at a later stage in the meal. The French have an inherent sense of privacy exhibited in their definite distinction between business and personal life. Respecting this privacy during negotiations is important and therefore discussing family or other personal matters within the formal business environment is not considered appropriate. It is customary to only use first names when invited to do so. Sometimes the French will introduce themselves by saying their surname first, followed by their Christian name.

Arriving for business meetings 10-15 minutes after the scheduled time is not considered late in many regions of France - particularly in the South of the country. A business meeting should begin and end with a brisk handshake accompanied by an appropriate greeting and the exchanging of business cards. Despite the formality, it is not uncommon practice to stray from the agenda during and in the early stages of a business relationship meetings are often dedicated to information sharing and discussion, rather than reaching final decisions. Interrupting is not seen as disrespectful and there may be frequent differences in opinion and rigorous debate during business negotiations.

Do not be afraid to be direct and defend your position - the French will appreciate your ability to stand your ground. They take their time before arriving at a decision and attempting to rush them or displaying signs of impatience will not be appreciated. Making direct but moderate eye contact with your French business colleagues is important but retain a constant air of formality and reserve during all business meetings and at all levels within the business. Generally speaking, unless specifically stated, deadlines are open to negotiation.

The French are very particular about food and wine. If you are invited to dinner the host will be expect to carefully choose the wine to match the meal. It may be better to take flowers or another gift rather than a bottle - although superstitions and tradition suggest that you should avoid chrysanthemums and red carnations. The French are also very clothes conscious and wear slightly less 'casual' clothes than in some other countries. It is considered good manners to keep you hands visible during meals, resting them on the table rather than your lap. Leaving food on your plate is considered impolite.

Balancing act
Since the introduction of Les RTT (Reduction de Temps du Travail) in 2000, companies with more than 20 employees have been obliged to ask their staff to work no more than 35 hours per week. This has had a very positive effect on many French workers' work-life balance. The move is the envy of many other European workers. However, many businesses, in particular in the UK are reluctant to follow suit as they fear it will damage productivity and profitability.

The article was compiled using information from Communicaid, a culture and communication agency ( )

3rd May 2007


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