When I first set out in 2008 to study in Paris, little did I know that it would be the start of a six-year-long journey that would see me grow to love with the French capital and get to know the ins and outs of French working culture. Now, as a new resident of Trondheim, I look back on my experience and share some survival tips about French working ways for any individual wishing to establish a business relationship in France.
Anyone aspiring to work for or with a French company will just have to accept that there will a lot of forms to fill in. After all, bureaucracy is a French word. You may be asked to produce documents with strange names often abbreviated to acronyms like RIB (relevé d’identité bancaire) and then have to work out their equivalent in your home country, if they exist. Sometimes they don’t. You may also be asked to provide an ‘attestation’ (loosely translated to a certificate) for this that and the other, including any issue related to your health, accommodation, education and employment. In most cases, these documents have to be translated by a certified translator.
When I registered for a Master’s degree at a university in Paris one of the documents that I had to produce was a list of all the modules that I had completed during my Bachelor’s degree in England and a breakdown of my marks. My degree was in Biochemistry, so they had names like ‘molecular biology’ and ‘genetics’, which are basically written the same way in French as they are in English. The person in charge of my ‘dossier’ told me that this had to be translated into French. Not a problem I said, I can do it. Her reply: “No no no. That will not do. It has to be a certified translator”. One week later, I came back with €50 less in my back account, and my piece of paper with an official stamp confirming that genetics is indeed ‘la génétique’ in French. I then proceeded to pay my €400 to register...
My advice is to be patient. If you are intending to work in France and need to make an application then allow plenty of time. It is always best to go in person so check the opening hours of the office first, get a list of documents that you need from an official source and make a duplicate of everything.
French people are eloquent speakers and proud of it. Philosophy is compulsory in schools until the age of 18 and much of French television and radio are dedicated to debates and lengthy discussions. Thus, the French know how to express their opinion very well and are not afraid to share it. If a co-worker is upset or displeased with something that you have done, then you will know about it. Explicitly. I would often hear cries from offices of j’en ai marre! (I’m fed up!), which to an English ear sounds like ‘Johnny Marr’ and would wonder why most French people seemed to dislike the lead guitarist of the Smiths. This little misunderstanding was soon cleared up however and I learnt an important lesson. In most places you are encouraged to say exactly what you think if you want to earn someone’s respect.
Although it is widely accepted that the 35 hour work week is largely a myth, there is one aspect of social rights that French workers are not prepared to scrimp on: holidays. It is very common for people, even those without children, to take a long time off during the school holidays, with many businesses working at half efficiency during July and August. For example, when I was working in a laboratory at the university I had to sign my name when I entered and left the building during August, because this was deemed ‘unusual activity’. During August in particular, the bakers hang up their aprons, Paris empties, and you can take a vélib (city bike) without fear of being mowed down by one of the capital’s erratic drivers. Clearly, it is not good for business if most of your collaborators are sunning themselves on the beaches of Corsica, so plan any activity for ‘la rentrée’ (the beginning of September).
In the land of fine wine, meats and cheeses, it comes as no surprise that food and eating are taken very seriously. Lunch is a sacred time that must be shared with others and those who choose to eat a sandwich at their desk will be committing a big faux pas. On the rare occasions where I had to eat lunch on the go (sur le pouce) complete strangers passing me by would say ‘bon appétit’. Harness the power of these two magic words and use them at every meal. They signify that this is an important time to stop what you are doing and enjoy your food, slowly and in company. Your French colleagues will no doubt be impressed.
The most important thing is to enjoy yourself in the knowledge that you will also be acquiring useful language skills. You will definitely need to pick up some French along the way, because English is not spoken by everyone, so relish the opportunity. The capital itself also has lots to offer for city workers. Its tree-lined boulevards and numerous parks are a pleasant place to escape for a quick break or a morning stroll. Although beer itself tends to be expensive (around €8 a pint), most bars offer happy hours between 18h and 20h for the after work clientele. Public transport is cheap (around €1.5 for a journey inside Paris) and if you have an employer, they are obliged to pay for half of it. So pack your bags, say adieu and try working life à la française.
Photo credit: Mark McQuitty