This handy guide from Expertise in Labour Mobility includes information on French management culture, hierarchy, negotiations, and business etiquette in France.
Hierarchy in France
In France both business and political life are characterised by a strong hierarchical structure in large companies. Positions and the corresponding power are clearly defined. And when dealing with the French, you should stick to formal etiquette.
Respect for authority in French organisations is based on respect for competence. The PDG (Président Directeur Général) or ‘patron’ (general manager) will be expected to possess a strong authority and general expertise. Usually, the patron does not have any personal relationship with subordinates in or outside of the office. He/she is shielded by his/her secretary. Hence, if you try to contact people at top positions you always have to get past their secretary first!
Strategies are usually developed on a long-term basis. The larger the company, the longer and the more elaborate the planning. Planning is done at the top of an organisation, never by the staff. The PDG decides what has to be done and depicts his/her ideas.
A vital part of communication in French organisations is partly hidden beneath a complex network of personal ties and alliances that helps people to get things done.
Beyond that, the French language often employs rhetoric and philosophical devices, as an indicator of education and status. The French like abstract reasoning, theories, and logic so much that it sometimes confuses straightforward, pragmatic thinkers, like for instance the British.
Meetings in France
The French hold meetings simply to discuss a certain subject at stake, and the time will be used to give instructions and to co-ordinate on-going actions. Important decisions are hardly ever made during the meeting itself.
The seating at most meetings is arranged in coherence with the company’s hierarchical order. Be aware that there is an evident difference between a manager – the patron – and his or her subordinates. Meetings with a tight schedule and a detailed agenda are most common.
The French business protocol requires formality and aloofness during negotiations.
Foreigners to France have repeatedly described the initial posture of the French towards new ideas and new products being somewhat condescending. It is often perceived, that the French do not see their counterpart as equal – you are either better or worse than them! Nevertheless, you should remain polite and calm during negotiations. Illustrate how your ideas or products could be of great value to them.
Reaching a decision can be a lengthy process, since every aspect will be extensively analysed and all matters are discussed in detail. Keep in mind that verbal agreements have no binding value.
French time perception
The French take punctuality seriously and it is considered a sign of courtesy to be on time.
Office hours are from 8.30/9.00 till 18.00, Monday to Friday, with typically a long lunch break between 12.30 and 14.30.
Appointments in France
Appointments are necessary and should be made at least 2 weeks in advance. A good time to schedule appointments is at 11.00 or 15.30 Avoid scheduling meetings during August, as this is a common vacation period.
A handshake is a common way of greeting in France. Family, close friends and long-term colleagues kiss on both cheeks (depending on the region people originate from they kiss two or four times).
Colleagues of the same age and same level will use first names and the informal pronoun ‘tu’. But in contact with superiors ‘monsieur’ (Sir) and ‘madame’ (Mrs) and only the formal ‘vous’ is used to address one another.
Keep using surnames and the appropriate titles until you are specifically invited to do otherwise.
Dress Code in France
Elegance is the keyword in this context: Men wear conservative suits and ties, and coloured, white as well as striped shirts. Women wear conservative suits, dresses and pant suits. Suit-jackets stay on in offices and restaurants.
Wining and dining
Invited to a dinner party at someone’s home you should typically arrive 15 minutes late, but make sure you are on time for a social gathering at a restaurant.
The French do not like to do business over dinner. Dinner is more of a social event and a time to enjoy good food, wine and discussion. Be prepared to discuss French culture, heritage and politics.
In France cooking is considered as a form of art. Enjoying good food and (French!) wine is highly appreciated.
Use of business cards
Business cards should mention academic title and job title. Give your card to the receptionist or secretary upon arrival. At meetings, business cards are exchanged after the initial introductions.