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Cathy Wellings


Head of Intercultural Training

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Doing business in France – cultural considerations for HR


The French Republic is the European Union’s second most populous country, the EU’s second largest economy and the world’s fifth largest economy. According to the IMF, France has achieved a GDP of $US2.2 trillion in 2012. France suffers from a reasonably high unemployment rate, currently estimated at 9.8%, which is higher than many of the larger EU countries. However, France’s economy remains strong, focusing on continued privatisation of many state owned businesses. Manufacturing, financial services, energy and agriculture all contribute to France’s strong export market. Tourism and transport are also major business throughout France. France is the world’s most visited country.

France in Focus

France has a population of just over 65 million as of 2012. Its government is a unitary parliamentary system with the constitution of the Fifth Republic established in 1958. The head of state is the President, who is directly elected to a five year term. France is administered by regions, which are further divided into departments. France has five overseas departments, mostly in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, and several overseas collectivities and territories reaching from the Americas to the Pacific.  They have varying degrees of autonomy and representation in parliament.

It is illegal for the French government to collect statistics about its population along ethnic lines. However, respected estimates indicate that about 19% of the total population can trace their ethnic origins to somewhere outside France. The largest groups are thought to be other Europeans, especially from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Poland, followed by people from the Maghreb (French speaking North Africa), French speaking West Africa and from the Caribbean.

Similarly, religious statistics are of necessity also an estimate. The majority of French are Christian, with approximately 58% of the population nominally Catholic and 3% of the population Protestant.  Another 30% of the population identify as not religious. About 6% of French residents are Muslim, with the remainder of the population following other religious faiths. French law protects both the separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion.

French is the country’s official language, with several minority languages recognised, mostly found in the overseas departments, collectivities and territories.  Although many French people may speak another language, the French expect business to be conducted in French. There may be other languages – notably English – spoken in some multinational organisations with a regional presence in France, but these are the exception.

Core Cultural Values

Being French

Being French is more than having French blood or living in the country.  It’s a way of life. The French motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité – liberty, equality, fraternity – represents core French values.

The French can be very individualistic. It is not unusual for someone to voice a contrary opinion or point of view. At the same time, the French generally respect status and hierarchy. Social status, where you live, family reputation and educational qualifications all determine where you fit in French hierarchy. Respecting French values will go a long way toward earning respect from your French counterparts.

Joie de vivre

Unlike some Western cultures where work is highly regarded for its own intrinsic value, the French balance work obligations of work with enjoying life’s pleasures. Modern legislation of the 35 hour work week typifies this balance. Work is important; so is leisure.

Logical thinking

A nation who values its philosophers, the French pride themselves on their ability to think logically. Rene Descartes’ statement:  ‘I think, therefore I am’ is a brilliant indicator of the French mindset. Cartesian logic can be described as a way to determine the best solution to a problem by exploring all potential options and outcomes. It may also help explain why some behaviour you may witness in France feels like complicating a solution to a simple problem to other cultures.

Important Business Values


The French are justifiably proud of their business achievements. There are more French companies in the Fortune Global 500 list than any other European country, with only the USA, Japan and China listing more. The French are also proud of their cultural achievements. This pride extends to language, food, art, literature, music, film, fashion and sport. Showing an interest in French cultural achievements is welcome and will generally endear you to the French.

Most French people would expect you to have some level of understanding the French way of doing things, including business matters. Organisations attempting to change or improve business by imposing a change away from core French values are likely to run in to strong resistance.

Visitors to France should show pride in their culture as well, but should never directly compare their culture to France, especially if implying its superiority to French cultural values.

Work life balance

Expect the French to be ‘on the job’ during normal working hours. However, the rhythm of business also means that ‘off duty’ time is also respected. Most French people would not consider working late into the evening or during the weekend unless agreed to in advance and only then for a very specific reason. There are times of the year when the French expect to focus on their family or take holidays, including Christmas and other public holidays as well as the month of August.


The French can be very individualistic whilst simultaneously respecting hierarchy. Thus, many organisations will expect to hear many different opinions in the decision making process. However, once a decision is reached, the organisation as a whole will respect the senior most person in authority, even if they personally disagree with their stance.

Don’t be informal. Using someone’s given name before you are invited to do so will not win you any favours. Make sure you are well dressed and well groomed.

Negotiating is serious business – and an art. Analyse all detail, even if it is small and not particularly relevant to the big picture. Never rush or try to dismiss matters that may seem trivial to you. Never expect to work out specifics later.

Expect to debate, almost as if it is a sport. Criticism is generally respected, especially if it demonstrates clever thought, intellectual prowess or application of logic. Presenting a well thought out, logical, detailed solution that plays to French values are the key to successful influencing.

Everything is negotiable, but once things are agreed, they may be formalised in great detail. Once this happens, then a bureaucratic process will take over.

Do’s and Don’ts

Although most French people will overlook small political and social faux pas, visitors doing business in France should be aware of the following pitfalls that could jeopardise their business relationship.


  • Try to learn some French if you don’t already speak the language, even if it is just the courtesies
  • Remain formal in a business environment, including your dress and demeanour
  • Thoroughly prepare for meetings in advance
  • Pay attention to detail
  • Be prepared to defend your position eloquently and logically
  • Include professional titles and qualifications on your business cards if you have them
  • Use your French colleagues’ titles and surnames unless you have specifically been invited to address them more informally


  • Expect meetings to start exactly on time. Accommodation is made for socialising and late arrivals. Meetings are more likely to start about 15 minutes later than scheduled.
  • Shy away from difficult business topics as this can make you seem weak or unprepared
  • Try to deflect a situation by using humour. Confrontation is perfectly acceptable and direct debate to defend your stance is expected.
  • Try to discuss personal matters in a business environment as the French respect privacy
  • Be impatient
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Cathy Wellings

Head of Intercultural Training

Read more from Cathy Wellings

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