France is considered an employee’s paradise.
With ample annual leave, union power, and strong worker protections, you might well be considering working in France. However, while the topic of living and working in Paris has never been so popular – thank you Netflix – one thing we all want to avoid is making an Emily in Paris faux pas. That’s why we’ve enlisted some of our French colleagues to demystify their workplace culture and give insight into what makes France one of the most enviable places to work in the world.
Lunch is sacred in French culture. It’s seen as not only bonding time with your colleagues, but a deep-seated ritual. Typically, lunchtime is allocated an hour to an hour ½ – a stark contrast to Australia’s usual ½ hour. As part of French regulations (of which there are many, and will be further explained), workplaces might either provide a subsidised canteen for their employees or a coupon to be used at restaurants (and they can be used at grocery stores!).
The subsidy and coupon allowance can vary between companies, sometimes it’s percentage based (60% employee – 40% employer) or cash based (from 7 euros up to 11 euros). For the canteens, you typically won’t pay more than a few euros to have lunch, due to the subsidy. For the coupon, while in the past it would have been paper, now a plastic card (looks like a debit card) is given. Lunch is highly regarded and is thought of and treated as an official break from work.
2. équilibre - Balance Between Professional & Personal Life
The separation of work and life is distinct in France. There are lots of regulations that protect it, and it underpins France’s workplace culture. Most workers are required by French law to spend at least 11 consecutive hours away from work; therefore many employees might only arrive at the office between 9 and 10 am.
It’s not surprising that France then has some of the best work leave entitlements in the world. The distinction between professional and personal life is apparent in every way business is conducted in France, your private life is just that – private and you have the right to it.
3. Dress Code
While it depends on if you are working in a ‘young’ or startup company, mostly everywhere else, it’s typically formal and conservative attire. Women are usually wearing smart pants or dresses with understated makeup. For men, suits and ties are standard. However, not immune from outside influence, ‘Casual Friday’ is growing popular, especially in Paris, this is where you can wear jeans and trainers.
These are typically only for offices. However, in the name of French solidarité which underpins France’s culture, if you are an office worker working in a factory (where the labour workers must wear their uniform at all times for safety purposes), you will not be able to partake in Casual Friday, and instead must stay in your usual dress.
Meetings should be arranged well in advance (some even say two weeks!) and you should be careful with arranging any in the summer, especially in August. With five weeks of annual leave, many employees go on holiday during this time and some businesses even shut down for that period.
At the beginning of the meeting, the agenda should be discussed and this is the time to state your business intentions clearly. Additionally, meetings in France are formal and there is not a lot of discussion of your private life. It’s just a business. Again this hones back to the idea that work and life are separate and there is no blurring of lines. One of our French colleagues called it a “right to privacy”, one that they feel is less of a given in Australia.
In France, the hierarchical workplace culture can restrain younger colleagues from speaking up in meetings. It should be noted that understanding where people stand in the organisation (in regards to structure), is crucial to not causing offence and embarrassment, especially in meetings.
Punctuality is not a big issue in France. In saying that, don’t try to or expect the meeting to be rushed if it started late. The meeting will touch on every process and detail to ensure a full picture. To try to speed it up could severely offend your French counterparts.
Unions are King in France. They are highly influential and play a massive role in the day-to-day operations of companies. While their numbers are few (only an estimated 8% of French workers are union membership holders), they have great power. Unionised employees have a seat at the business table. Meeting up 11 times a year (so, usually once a month), they along with the director, HR and other managers discuss issues and operations.
For example, if the director wanted to change the software used in the company, it would have to be cleared by the union members. Essentially, anything that affects employees needs to be approved by the union employee representative. This could take several meetings and explains why the changing of policies and procedures in French companies take a long time; it’s a stringent approval process.
6. La Bise
La Bise refers to the traditional French greeting of kissing one’s cheek. La Bise is a contentious issue, especially in the workplace setting. Putting aside COVID, the question of how many depends on the region. In cities like Paris and Bordeaux, it’s two; for southern regions, three, and in some other provinces it’s four! The question of which way to go first is also not wholly agreed on. Thankfully, in the business realm, you are pretty safe with just a handshake. However, if you build close relationships with your colleagues or even clients, this might change – the best way to go is with the flow.
7. Right To Disconnect
Since 2017, there has been a law in France where employees have the ‘right to disconnect’ after work hours. This protects workers from being 1) penalised for not responding to emails or calls outside working hours and 2) ensures there is a work-life balance. However, this right is only afforded to companies that have 50 or more employees.
Additionally, while the Right to Disconnect is part of the French Labour Code (Code du Travail), there is no stipulation as to how it should be implemented and is rather up to the employees and employers to come to an agreement. In saying that, it is treated seriously, in fact, in 2018 a court ruling had fined a company a couple of thousand euros as compensation for an employee taking out-of-office calls. So, don’t expect to receive phone calls when the work day is done.
Of course, being that it is the right to disconnect, an employee is free to respond. The ‘right to disconnect’ is more so protecting the employee from ramifications of not responding and being punished by their employer. If you are an employer, you are allowed to send emails, but you should certainly not expect a response, or worse, mandate it.
As you have probably already guessed from the section on lunch in France, food is incredibly important – and so are celebrations! To bring a croissant is perhaps the Anglo version of bringing a cake to work. To celebrate your first day, your work will provide croissants to celebrate. When it’s your birthday and last day, it’s customary for you to bring croissants to commemorate the occasion. So be sure to bring them and no doubt you’ll impress your French colleagues!
9. Business Cards
Business cards are incredibly important in France. Your company will provide one for you, but it is becoming more popular for workers to have their own personal business cards. These cards can be personalised however you like and are a great way to market yourself.
In cases where you are looking for a job, your personal card should be given to your interviewer. It would be best to have your business card in both French and your native language, but be sure to present it French side up. In the case of networking events, use your company’s business card.
10. Tu Vous or not Tu Vous?
“You” is a bit of a contentious issue in French workplaces. While in English we only have one word for “you”, in France, they have two, with different formalities. Tu is the less formal version and is used typically with friends, close colleagues, and family. Vous on the other hand, is used for strangers, people you’ve just met, and your boss, to give a few examples. However, the changing of generations has seen this tu / vous situation become a bit more blurred.
In ‘younger’ companies and start-ups typically, you might find that in order to initiate and maintain a flat organisational structure or more casual workplace, ‘tu’ might be used to address anyone in the office. In saying that, the consensus from our French colleagues is that it’s vous until the other person says so.
But First, Bonjour
Bonjour is so important in French culture. Bonjour is a sign of respect and you will most certainly insult the French if you do not use it. This is not just in the workplace – this is everywhere: entering a shop, stopping someone on the street to ask for directions; Bonjour is the key. If you forget it though, no matter, you will most certainly be reminded.
For the workplace, you cannot say a general Bonjour to everyone in the office. Instead you should say Bonjour individually to everyone (and maybe la bise, depending on your relationship). Not doing that could upset your French counterparts. You don’t want to offend your colleagues and have them second-guess the meaning of you not greeting them individually, so don’t forget to do the rounds.
(Don’t) Say My Name, (Don’t) Say My Name
If you’re wanting to ensure no offence is taken in France – don’t take any advice from Destiny Child’s hit song, Say My Name. Using one’s name is a no-no in France’s business culture. When addressing anyone you must use either Monsieur (Sir) or Madame (Ma’am), and this applies to all forms of communication, whether it be in person or in an email.
You may only use their name when you are invited to do so. On the other hand, some start-ups and ‘young’ companies are trying to do away with this and address everyone by their names, but as it’s still the minority – keep using Monsieur and Madame.
Don’t Call Me Mademoiselle
While for many French learners you may have been taught the term Mademoiselle as a way to address an unmarried (and usually younger) woman – this is no longer the case. Following lobbying from Feminist groups who argued the sexist nature of the term Mademoiselle, Madame is now considered the only way to address a woman.
In fact, the term ‘Mademoiselle’ has been removed from government documents, and some towns in France have even outright banned it. So be sure to not slip out a Mademoiselle when addressing any of your female colleagues.
In France, you’re typically paid monthly. The payslip is significantly long, in comparison to Australia. Averaging at 2 pages. The slip is legally required to be itemised, with work hours, overtime, sick pay, holiday hours, gross salary, net salary, insurance, pension and accrued annual leave. So don’t be too surprised if you receive a paper / document heavy payslip every month – it’s normal!
13. à votre santé (Cheers)
You cannot talk about France without talking about wine. France is one of the biggest wine consuming countries in the world. It’s seen as a symbol of sophistication and tradition and it does have a spot in the workplace, albeit a dwindling one. During lunch it’s not uncommon for French workers to enjoy a glass of red wine with their meal. Only recently (in the last few years), has this been changing, with companies even banning it. However, currently, alcohol at work is not forbidden by law.
It would also be good to note that when drinking wine, say in a social setting, the wine will be topped up if you finish it. Therefore, if you find that you’ve had enough to drink, leave some wine in your glass.
The French know how to celebrate the day’s end! The imported American tradition of Happy Hour is quite common across France, especially in Paris. While the Americans know how to put on a good show, the French give them a run for their money with their Happy Hour offering.
Happy Hour is usually between 6pm to 9pm and is every day in France! And don’t worry if you don’t drink alcohol – thanks to government legislation to curb ‘le binge drinking’ non-alcoholic beverages must be at a reduced price, too! After work, It’s a great way to catch up informally with your employees and build some bonds that are crucial to a good working relationship.
France is a country that is famed for its delicious food, rich culture and unique way of life that is no doubt enviable to outsiders. If you are planning on making the big move to France or striking up a partnership with a French company, we hope this article helps you in better understanding France’s corporate culture. Just go with the flow and if you make a mistake, just remember c’est la vie.
Slang / French Words
c’est la vie = That’s life
équilibre = balance
un Boulot = work, job
un taf = slang for job
à votre santé = Cheers (Formal)