How to succeed in France: 10 business tips

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Crossing borders to start a business in France can be exciting, but international expansion can be precarious if you fail to detect the cultural clues that make or break a deal.

Second economy in the European Union and seventh in the world, France is an important player on the world economic scene. It is the leading European destination for foreign direct investment, a leading financial services center and a major hub for start-ups.

Yet the country’s unique culture and traditions play an important role when doing business in France. Here are 10 tips to avoid common pitfalls when starting or expanding your business in France.

1. Pay attention to the hierarchy

In the workplace, senior managers are assigned their own desks and have priority over subordinates when entering meeting rooms. Being aware of how the chain of command works can make the difference as the hierarchy dominates the operations of the company. For example, if you don’t know who is in charge, you may be wasting time and energy negotiating with the wrong person.

2. First impressions count in France

First impressions can be the difference between success and failure when doing business in France. That is why it is worth paying attention to your attire, which should be formal and professional. With the exception of start-ups, the concept of “business casual” has not yet gained a foothold in the French working world.

3. Cultivate relationships in France

While recognition of the hierarchy is the first step to business success in France, cultivating positive relationships is the obvious second. As the French appreciate good manners and politeness, it is crucial to follow proper business etiquette with associates, partners and clients. Address men with “sir” and women with “madam”. Avoid using first names unless invited to do so, and avoid small discussions about family and personal matters in early meetings. The French prefer to separate the professional and personal aspects.

4. Control your network in France

Networking is an essential element of French corporate culture. Business success depends on network recommendations rather than accolades and titles. The right introduction can open doors that would otherwise stay locked. This is why it is important to build a business network by relying on a local partner with the right contacts.

5. Prepare your meetings in advance

Schedule business meetings about two weeks in advance and arrive well prepared. In France, all meeting participants are expected to understand the agenda and contribute to the discussion. However, don’t rely on a final decision or resolution after just one meeting. Anticipate further talking points and several rounds of discussion before the deal is sealed.

6. Avoid high pressure tactics

The French do not appreciate aggressive sales techniques and do not like being forced to make quick decisions. Be patient, highlight the benefits of your proposal, and be prepared for in-depth questions until the person at the top makes the final call. You should also follow up the meetings with a written summary of the discussion and what was agreed upon.

7. Negotiate in France

Business meals are a common practice in France. Lunches and dinners are often scheduled to break the ice to explore business relationships before moving on to serious discussions. Expect a formal meal at a good restaurant, rather than a quick bite at the corner cafe, and be prepared to pay for everyone if you’re the one to throw the invitation.

8. Lunchtime is sacred

Avoid lunchtime if you need to call or make an appointment, unless you invite your French contact to a luncheon. Employees in France are given an appropriate lunch break and are not required to spend it at their desk. Therefore, don’t expect an immediate response to emails during lunch break.

This also applies to evenings and weekends. Since 2017, managers and employees of companies with more than 50 employees are no longer required to respond to e-mails outside working hours.

9. And the French holidays too

Activity in France slows down considerably in July and August, when employees take most of their five weeks of annual leave. Numbers also drop considerably in May, which has several public holidays. If a public holiday falls near a weekend, French workers often choose to take a day or two off to “bridge” between the holiday and the weekend. Schedule critical meetings and business decisions outside of these months and off the holidays.

10. Learn the language

Although English is widely spoken in business circles, learning French greetings and a few useful words will help you build a closer relationship with your contacts, in addition to gaining their trust. You may also want to consider investing in a bilingual business card set. However, you should plan for professional translation services when doing business in France, as French is the only accepted language for contracts and official documents.

Underestimating cultural differences can lead to costly mistakes when starting or expanding a business in France. The support of a local partner is therefore essential to navigate the maze of cultural, linguistic and administrative complexities of this fascinating country.

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