Last update on January 23, 2020

Even if you speak French, foreigners who want to work in France should be prepared for all the challenges awaiting them at the fonctionaires.

Anyone who works in France will tell you that getting a job is not easy for foreigners in France. And if you don’t speak French particularly well, then your chances are almost zero! Because, unlike in the UK where non-English speaking immigrants can get work fairly easily, France is much more of a closed door.

For many reasons getting work permits, social security numbers, registering to pay tax etc is very complicated in France.

Many a happy week can be spent toing and froing between this office and that following the instructions of ill-humoured fonctionaires who appear to delight in telling the hapless foreigner that they need to go to ‘another office’.

There are also forms to complete that are the size of a War and Peace novel! There are time delays of months and years! Working, officially, is not easy for foreigners in France.

Working illegally

Many foreigners are therefore forced to work in the black economy. This can have disastrous consequences if you or your employer are caught. You’ll likely get deported or imprisoned. I’ve haven’t actually heard of this happening to anyone, but I’ve seen the threatening posters in the fonctionaires offices, and they were scary enough!

Having said that, the black economy is alive and kicking in France. In almost any expat community in France, someone will know somebody who will put a satellite dish up for cash, repair a roof for a few thousand euros less than an artisan and almost everyone in France is, or thinks they are, builders!

One word of caution when enlisting the services of those working in the black economy: whilst putting up a satellite dish incorrectly may only result in a bit of inconvenience, having a roof fixed or a wall built by an amateur could have serious consequences. Roofs could leak, electrics can become dangerous, walls collapse, people could be hurt or killed, and you have no way of getting your hard-earned cash back, because the work is not under any guarantee.

Beware of the employment police

For a short while I worked for an English chap who opened an English pub in France. From the outset this expat got good advice and only employed registered Brits. Even then the employment police came to check our permits.

Being idiots we did not recognise this visitor who was snooping around. A young lad with learning difficulties called Jacques did straight away.

On the days when Jacques’ elderly parents felt robust enough to take care of him, he turned up and commented on our work. He’d do little jobs for cigarette money and generally entertain everyone.

One day whilst Jacques was pottering he suddenly became serious and very coherent. Normally, Jacques was rude to everyone, but not to a man in a small black car. But to this man, Jacques grovelled.

When the man disappeared inside, Jacques informed us that he was the bad police and we should be careful!

Fonctionaires only say ‘NON!’

Foreigners who want to set up a small business also have it tough.

“Fonctionaires only ever say ‘Non!’” was what we were told by our legendary French neighbour, Guy, when we first arrived in France.

Guy had spent his life working for La Poste and had risen to quite a lofty position, but had to admit that almost every good idea for self-employment or a small business was blocked by some faceless fonctionaire, in some town or city office somewhere.

These officials would never see anyone in person, nor answer any telephone calls. They would only respond to things in writing and that response would nearly always be a resounding ‘NON!’

In fact, Guy informed me that any fonctionaire worth his salt would commence his employment by getting special rubber stamp made up with the word ‘NON!’ on it!

Swap that rubber stamp!

A friend who spoke fluent French and had his own business was intent on working at La Poste, the French post office. However, when he arrived in France he was informed that they employed only third-generation French!

The mayor in our nearest town recounted the tale of a friend, a British English teacher, who had a first-class honors degree in French and a teaching degree. He was told he would have to re-qualify under the French system. Having done so, he was still refused employment. Only after recourse to the European Court of Human Rights was he afforded the opportunity of teaching in France.

But the anomaly is that another friend managed to teach English in a French secondary school with no qualifications. Her only claim to fame was that she had a child who attended that school!

Any expat trying to get a job needs a sense of humor, luck, and resilience in equal measure! But they also need to find that rubber stamp with the word ‘Non’ on it and swap it for one with ‘Oui’!

Visit your local Mairie

If you just moved to France, register with the French authorities, get a social security number, and pay social security. The best place to sort this out is your local Mairie, or municipal hall.

I was exceptionally lucky. The first house we bought in France was in a village with a brilliant mayor and an English-speaking assistant. They couldn’t do enough for us, helping us with residence permits and social security numbers. They gave advice and assistance on almost everything. Our mayor also popped in with seasonal fruit parcels, cherries in the early summer, runner beans all through the hot months and apples in the autumn. She even brought a splendid festive hamper for my mother-in-law for Christmas and she was only visiting!