Contrary to what expats might expect from the country responsible for the expression 'laissez-faire', doing business in France is actually a highly bureaucratic affair. Heavy-handed interventionist policies dating back to World War II have created a particular French business culture that calls for government interaction at almost every level.
The World Bank ranked France 32nd out of 190 countries in its Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020. The country ranked well in trading across borders (1st), enforcing contracts (16th) and getting electricity (17th). It ranked poorly, however, for ease of getting credit (104th) and ease of registering property (99th).
Expats should understand that the French are very proud of their culture and language. This pride is often reflected in the attitude towards foreigners in France. For this reason, expats who want to succeed in business should make a concerted effort to learn the language and familiarise themselves with local customs and practices before doing business in France.
Business hours vary in France, with the standard working day being from 8am and 9am to between 4pm and 5pm. However, with a government-set standard 35-hour work week, many companies are flexible, opting for shorter days or Friday afternoons off.
French is the primary language in France, though English proficiency is widespread and often used in business.
Business attire in France is formal, smart and stylish. It's also conservative, not flashy.
Gifts are not generally expected between colleagues or business associates in France. Appreciation may be better expressed through the hosting of a dinner or social event. In such social situations, however, a small gift is appropriate as a sign of gratitude.
Women are entitled to equal treatment in France, and frequently occupy high positions in the French business world.
A handshake is an appropriate greeting for both men and women. French handshakes are generally brisk and light. Use the formal titles 'Monsieur' and 'Madame' (Mr or Mrs).
Business culture in France
New arrivals may find it difficult to get to grips with business culture in France. On one hand, it can be formal with adherence to hierarchical business structures and an emphasis on appearance. On the other hand, expats will need to incorporate some level of flexibility when it comes to deadlines and meetings.
The French are passionate people and this reflects in local business culture. Spirited debates are common. Expat businesspeople are expected to be able to intellectually defend their positions. While arguments may be emotional, logic usually holds the most weight with French businesspeople.
Business culture in France is particularly hierarchical, with policy and vision conceived by upper management and carried out by junior employees. Socialising across hierarchical lines is unusual. Most senior managers in French companies hail from the elite Grandes Écoles schools and share a respect for intellectualism.
Expats may need to give their wardrobe some attention before delving into the business world, as appearance is very important in France. Business dress is typically stylish and conservative. Dark suits are appropriate, and clothes should be of good quality. Even occasions specified as informal will require tastefully coordinated dress, including a jacket for men.
French businesspeople are very casual about punctuality, and it's not unusual for business associates to be 10 to 15 minutes late to a meeting. Similarly, deadlines may be considered negotiable unless otherwise stated.
When addressing a French businessperson, always use the appropriate formal title like 'Monsieur' and 'Madame' unless told otherwise.
Dos and don’ts of business in France
Do dress stylishly and wear quality business attire
Don't make exaggerated claims
Do ensure that written communications are grammatically correct
Do expect to defend your ideas intellectually