Employment Basics

French business etiquette

Whether it’s a professional handshake or an interview for your dream job, learn everything you need to know about French business etiquette.

French business etiquette
writer

By Ruth Vargas

Updated 9-1-2024

Home to many top competitors across several industries, France has a world-leading economy that offers millions of jobs. From manufacturing to finance, you can start or further your career in any number of fields by moving to France on a work visa. However, to seamlessly integrate into the French professional world you’ll need a strong understanding of the country’s business culture and etiquette.

For more information, read about the following:

Resume.io

Trying to land the job that will take you on your next big adventure? Make sure your application is top of the pile with Resume.io's online resume builder. They provide resume templates, cover letter help, and more, making job applications effortless. Make it to the next round with Resume.io.

Business in France

With the 7th largest economy worldwide, France relies on its largest industries as significant financial contributors. Manufacturing, energy, agriculture, transport, technology, and tourism are the leading industries in the country.

Paris business district, La Défense, is shown at sunrise, with the sun reflecting off the buildings
La Défense business district, Paris, France (Photo: Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images)

France prides itself in being a global leader in luxury products with popular brands like Bugatti, Dior, and Chanel, so it’s no surprise that the manufacturing sector is responsible for 86% of total production in France. The manufacturing sector also includes food and beverage, machinery, and fabricated metal products. Additionally, France is home to the largest utility company in the world, Electricite de France. The technology sector includes aerospace, automotive, agri-food, and medical device advances.

Finally, tourism makes up 10% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and helps bring business to local attractions, eateries, and businesses. Known for its cuisine, architecture, and rich history, France is a popular tourist spot and Paris is the 2nd most visited city in the world after New York City.

In addition to attracting tourists, France also interests investors. Part of the reason for this is that the French government creates incentives for foreigners to start a business in France. Some of the best sectors for business investment include e-commerce, biotechnology, telecommunications, and manufacturing. According to the 2022 Annual Report on Foreign Investment in France, there were 16,900 foreign businesses in the country and 1/4 were in manufacturing.

French business culture

French business etiquette tends to be quite strict and begins with professionalism. The French strongly value formalities, politeness, adhering to the rules, and structure. This means you should always address your superiors and those you meet for the first time in French using Monsieur or Madame. You should also use the formal version of “you” (vous) in business settings. In a French business context, introductions are always made using your first and last name. Sometimes, you may hear others introduce themselves with their last name first, followed by their given name. This is also acceptable in French business culture.

Cultural differences exist between the northern and southern regions of France, in part due to the weather. In general, the south is more rural when compared to the north. Companies in northern France are top companies in their industry, while jobs in the south are more relaxed. Hours also vary, with the north following the common business hours of 9:00 to 17:00, and the south following a more relaxed schedule with shorter hours.

Work-life balance in France

France ranks in 6th of 38 countries on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Better Life Index for work-life balance. French labor laws encourage work-life balance and protect employees from being overworked. The French value hard work but generally do not condone workaholism.

French law states that the standard work week is 35 hours and anything above this amount is considered overtime. Approximately 8% of employees work long hours in France, with an OECD average of 10%. For office staff, technical staff, industrial company staff, and department store staff, the maximum number of hours they can work by law is 45 hours per week. For all other workers, the maximum number of hours they can work is 50 per week. The north and south differ slightly in working hours, with the South taking on a more laidback attitude, flexible schedules, and longer lunch breaks.

Mandatory rest

In addition, French law requires employees to have a rest day, usually Sunday, and are limited to six working days per week. Shops and other businesses need permission to operate on Sundays. A law also gives workers the droit à la déconnexion, or the right to disconnect. This means you cannot be required to monitor or respond to phone calls or emails outside of your regular working hours. Full-time employees are entitled to five weeks of paid leave annually.

Time and space in French business culture

Regular business hours in France are usually 8:00 to 16:00, or 9:00 to 17:00. Proper business etiquette means the French avoid calling or meeting anyone during their lunch break, usually between 12:00 and 14:00. 

A man in a suit and carrying a briefcase runs to catch a Paris metro train as the doors are closing
Photo: Peter Cade/Getty Images

Punctuality is essential in France. If you know you will be late, calling and letting the other party know is important. The south has a more relaxed attitude towards punctuality than the north.

You should always set appointments and meetings at least two weeks in advance. Try to avoid scheduling meetings in August since many workers take their summer vacation during this month. In addition, avoid setting meetings for a day right before or right after one of the country’s 11 public holidays.

According to Eurostat, in 2018, only 6.6% of people in France teleworked. In 2021, this number increased to 22%, or one in five employees. Generally speaking, fewer teleworking opportunities exist for younger workers and those who work at small companies. As of February 2022, approximately 24% of employees still work remotely at least once weekly.

French business structure and hierarchy

Business culture tends to be very formal in France. You should use titles when addressing others in writing and in person. Businesses are usually structured in a hierarchical and centralized way, so the leaders typically make important decisions for the company. In addition, your rank in a company plays a vital role in how you interact with others. For example, the order in which you enter a room and seating arrangements are often based on your rank.

Diversity in the workplace in France

Despite the country’s large population of foreign workers, French law only has regulations regarding gender equality when it comes to diversity. As a result, companies are not always inclusive of minorities. It may be more challenging to find a job in France or move up in a company, depending on your background and fluency in French.

A study by McKinsey & Company found that in a sample of executives surveyed, 46% were foreign nationals or had dual French nationality. In addition, 19% of these executives were European, 9% were North American, and only 1% were from Africa. People of color are in high-profile positions less often when compared to a country like the United States. Several anti-discrimination laws in the workplace exist, including protected classes such as origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, and ethnicity, as the government tries to ensure equality among a diverse population. However, the statistics do not necessarily reflect this ideal.

Women in the French workplace

Most French companies aim to treat women, including foreigners, equally in the workplace. The French government added legislation to promote diversity in 2021, which created quotas for companies to meet to ensure women have the same opportunities as men. Companies with more than 1,000 employees must have at least 300 women in managerial positions by March 2026. This number will increase to 400 in 2029. In addition, companies are required to publish information on potential pay gaps between men and women each year. The current gender wage gap in France is 11.6%, which is average.

Women’s participation and representation

Approximately half of the French workforce are women. According to the INSEE, 68% of working-age women are employed, compared to 75% of men. In 2020, women held just under half of managerial positions, 43%, and 25% of director positions. In 2021, women made up 39.5% of parliament and 26% of French ambassadors.

Two women coworkers have a discussion while looking at a tablet in a high-end modern office
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Women are more dominant in the healthcare and social services field. There is still much room for growth in terms of women representation in the technology and engineering sectors. Interestingly, women are more likely to be in managerial positions in big cities than anywhere else.

Women’s income and the gender pay gap

According to the OECD, the current gender wage gap in France is 11.6%, which falls in the middle, or average, compared to other countries. This is because women are more likely to work part-time, especially after having children. This results in a lower likelihood of promotions. Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (INSEE) found a greater wage gap between fathers and mothers than between men and women who were not parents. Of course, all employees must be paid at least the minimum wage in France, which was €10.57 per hour in 2022. The average income was €39,300 per year.

Attitudes toward women in the workplace

Working women in France face similar prejudices as in other parts of the world. For example, one harmful stereotype is that working mothers are less committed to their careers, causing them to lose promotions or other opportunities. Additionally, there is a double standard in how some behaviors are viewed in men versus women. An assertive woman might be seen as aggressive, whereas a man would be seen as confident for the same behavior.

Sexism exists across all industries in France. An Organisation Internationale du Travail (International Labour Organization) study found that 52% of women had experienced sexual harassment at work, compared to only 27% of men. In a different study in 2018, 80% of women said they had encountered sexist attitudes on the job.

In France, certain behaviors are socially acceptable that would be considered sexist elsewhere and may be difficult to endure in the workplace. This includes flirting with female coworkers, as well as commenting on their on appearance, like hairstyles or outfit choices.

It’s important to note that just because something is not explicitly considered workplace sexual harassment does not mean it should be tolerated. Nonprofit organizations, like Souffrance et Travail, exist across France to help women take action after encountering inappropriate workplace behavior.

Conducting business in France

Business strategy, planning, and decision-making

Directors and management staff make strategic planning and decisions at the top of a company. There is little collaboration between lower-ranking employees and directors in making decisions, and leaders often take an authoritarian approach. If a decision is being made between two partner companies, typically, each company would have to hold internal and then meetings between both companies. It can take several sessions to come to a decision. Business plans are usually written up.

Most businesses are required by law to publish an annual report reviewing activities and finances over the previous years. In addition, companies must report on the company’s environmental and social impact and what steps the company is taking to address any problems in those areas.

Business meetings and negotiations

French business etiquette dictates that employees typically enter a room during meetings based on their rank in the company. Seating arrangements are also based on position, so you should wait to be seated. Meetings in France usually have a detailed agenda and are held in French, unless there’s a particular reason to have the meeting in English. You should give a few weeks’ notice if you need a language interpreter.

A group of engineers and designers have a team meeting in open-plan office
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Be patient, and don’t expect quick decision-making in a single meeting. The French prefer to analyze details, so be prepared for both sides to explain proposals thoroughly. After each side presents their proposal, they can ask questions and discuss. French businesspeople do not like to be pressured into making decisions. Aggressive selling techniques are usually poorly received. Once the parties reach a decision, the agreement is finalized with a detailed contract.

Business networking

Networking is vital in the French business world and can open up a lot of opportunities. Often, positions are filled through personal contacts. Networking usually takes place in person, but the French also use sites like LinkedIn and Viadeo for networking. You can also join a meet-up group to find people with similar interests.

One of the mistakes to avoid when networking is being too nice. Follow business etiquette, but don’t appear overly friendly since the French try to separate their personal and business lives. When networking, remember you are looking for business contacts, not friends, so being professional and formal is necessary. Many trade events take place within the country and internationally year-round.

Business socializing in France

It’s common to conduct business over lunch or dinner, although companies generally stick to business hours. Sometimes, meetings start at the office and continue during a meal. This creates a less formal environment and is more common during the beginning of negotiations. People usually meet at restaurants, not cafes or bars. Keep in mind that the host is expected to pay. You can bring your spouse to a business dinner, not a business lunch.

Remember that unless your company specifies this is a work meeting, the French dislike talking about work during meals. Dinner is considered a social event. For example, if you go out with friends or colleagues, but it is not a business meeting, avoid bringing up work topics.

French business etiquette

Greetings

When meeting someone for the first time, you can introduce yourself with your title and first and last name. A common greeting is saying bonjour with a quick and light handshake. The French appreciate formality and politeness, so you should address others using “monsieur” (sir) or “madam” (miss). One of the most well-known French etiquette rules in business is that you should use vous instead of tu. Both mean “you,” but vous is more polite.

Titles should also be used in correspondence. Although most French businesspeople know English, you should speak French since they prefer to communicate in French. The French will appreciate your effort to learn even a few phrases, even if you are not fluent. When speaking to someone, maintain eye contact.

Communication

During conversation, it is acceptable to ask many questions and interrupt somebody before they have finished. This common French conversation style does not break any business etiquette rules. In other countries, interrupting may be inappropriate, but in France, it is simply a way to express interest in the other person and the conversation. If you are being interrupted, take it initially as a positive sign that they like what you’re saying.

Businessman shaking hands with colleague and smiling after meeting in the office
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Be mindful of your body language when speaking to someone. Try to keep your hands out of your pockets. Snapping your fingers and slapping an open palm over a fist are offensive gestures to the French.

Also avoid asking questions about someone’s personal life. Remember, the French separate their work life and personal life. Likewise, if you are making a new friend, don’t ask questions about their work life. Do not mention your wealth, salary, politics, or religion. Appropriate topics include art, food, music, travel, and current events.

Dress code

Given that the French own some of the largest fashion brands, it’s no surprise that they like to dress to impress. Work attire is chic and elegant, with high-quality clothes, jewelry, and accessories. ‘Casual Friday’ is not widely known in the French workplace, and casual wear may even be considered inappropriate. Don’t turn up to work in your cozy weekend sweater, and especially not in sneakers.

Women should wear modest suits, pantsuits, or dresses. Men should wear suits and ties. Any facial hair should be neatly trimmed or preferably clean-shaven.

Gifts

As much as the French appreciate formalities and etiquette, gifts in business are only appropriate sometimes, like during Christmas and New Year’s. You are expected to bring a gift to thank your host at business dinners. Never give a business card with a gift or give one the first time you meet someone. You should also not gift anything with your company’s logo on it.

You should always give a gift in person rather than mailing it to a person’s home. Do not give chrysanthemums since these are for funerals. Also, avoid gifting red roses, since these are a symbol of love and romance. Finally, you should know that carnations are a symbol of bad luck.

Business cards

Business cards are widely used in France. When entering an office, offer a business card to the receptionist and anyone else you meet for the first time. At networking events, you can exchange business cards with others. You can offer your business card at the beginning or end of the meeting during business meetings.

As a courtesy, have one side of your business card printed in French and the other in your native language. In France, people commonly write their family name in all capital letters to stand out. You can do the same if you wish. Include the following information on your business card:

  • The name of the company you work for
  • The company’s logo
  • Your position or title at this company
  • Your full name
  • Your university degree
  • Your contact information

Social provision through businesses in France

All workers in France are required by law to pay social security contributions, taken directly out of their paycheck. When you begin working, your employer will register you with the French social security system. Employees are eligible for health insurance, accident and illness insurance, government pension contributions, and unemployment benefits. Your employer must also pay a portion of social security contributions on your behalf. This is called the contributions employeurs. Your pay stub will reflect contributions made by you and your employer.

Social security contributions include a mandatory French state pension and a supplementary pension plan. Additionally, you can sign up for a voluntary private pension plan. Life insurance companies usually manage voluntary occupational pension plans. French companies only offer employer-financed pension plans sometimes. If they do, it is usually only for executives.

However, French companies offer company savings plans, saving you some tax money. Some companies also contribute to this account.

French businesses in the community

Corporate donations comprised 41% of all charitable contributions in France between 2010 and 2019. In 2022, businesses donated to the top five causes were child protection, animal protection, working to end poverty, elderly assistance, and medical research. In recent years, more and more companies have begun making donations digitally. However, giving cash donations, in-kind donations, or staff volunteer opportunities is still possible. The government offers tax benefits for businesses that choose to donate to charity.

Community volunteers unloading paint cans in a row from car outside sunny community center
Photo: Hero Images Inc via Getty Images

The French government requires all businesses to make an annual public report on their environmental and social impacts. France was one of the first countries to create legislation to promote corporate social responsibility.

Sustainability and fair trade have been gaining popularity over the past decade. In 2019, 40% of the French only bought a product if it was sustainable enough. They also reported they were willing to pay more for food if it meant fair pay for a farmer. Additionally, France is one of the countries that sells the most products certified by Fairtrade International. Fair trade stores and special product labels have made it easier for customers to shop sustainably.

Business corruption and fraud in France

In 2022, France ranked 21st out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index. While there is a low level of corruption in the business world, it happens the most in the political sector and defense industry. The most frequent types of corruption were misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest, fraud, and forgery. Keeping up with French laws and well-known fraud techniques is a good way to protect yourself.

Useful resources