Working in France: bonne chance!

There is more to France than cheese and wine - our closest European neighbour offers a unique culture and working environment. Beth Holmes reports

Just 21 miles from the UK at its nearest point, and yet a world away in terms of culture, demographics, economics, language and, annoyingly, sporting ability, France is a popular destination for those looking to sample working life outside Britain. This is hardly surprising, given the country's recently introduced limit on working hours, together with its reputation as a nation of sophisticated food and wine lovers. But how easy is it to achieve a placement in France; has the country's faltering economy impacted on the job market as yet and how easy is it to overcome the cultural differences?

With an estimated population of 60m, there are already nearly 80,000 Britons living in France. Nearly one-fifth of the population is concentrated in the Paris region but otherwise there are just three other French cities with more than a million inhabitants. This does not mean however, that working in France means working in Paris. Most of the Big Four have offices in other major cities, including Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice and Toulouse. But it is true that, as with London, financial services are concentrated in the capital and therefore, whether you want to work in industry for a France-based company or in practice for one of the big accountancy firms, Paris is probably your best bet.

Land of opportunities

Certainly it is the capital that reflects most accurately the nation's economic peaks and troughs. Latest statistics (from the Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes) show that the French economy shrank faster than previously thought during the last three months of 2001 (French GDP contracted 0.3% during the three months to December rather than 0.1% as previously estimated). The sharper than expected fall raised concerns that France may have slipped into a recession during winter.

But PricewaterhouseCoopers' Stephen Hart, (featured in the case study opposite), does not believe that this downturn has translated into a tough working environment. 'Although merger and acquisition activity slowed during late 2001/early 2002 (though less than in the UK or US) - this possibly being a result of reduced activity in the world's financial markets over this period - business has started to increase significantly again since spring. Given this increased level of activity, my impression of the French financial job market is very positive,' he says.

France tends to follow what is happening in the US and UK, and although there is a stronger market for financial services in London and therefore better jobs, the fact that London is a bigger financial centre means that it tends to have sharper cycles. If things go wrong, they go very wrong, whereas in France the highs are neither as high nor the lows as low.

Generally, it is easier to work abroad as an accountant if you get a secondment within a big firm. The good news about France is twofold. First, it is possible to work in industry as well as the big recruitment houses, such as Badenoch & Clark, Michael Page and Winfield Ward Search and Selection, will usually have several France-based positions on their books.

Second, although a secondment with one of the Big Four is often the best method of finding work abroad, for jobs within the EU, other big and mid-tier firms will have offices in the capital cities and other major towns.

Mind your manners

Once you have found your dream job across the Channel, there are further important considerations it pays to be aware of, such as particular cultural conventions you may encounter in France. According to, 'cultural differences exist and when working on assignment as guests in a host country, ignoring them can cause, at worst, deep offence to host nationals, and at least, embarrassment to perpetrators when gaffes are made.'

For example, although no special social customs are observed, there is a great deal of hand shaking between colleagues and acquaintances, and visitors are advised to shake hands all round when meeting and saying goodbye. Female friends and relations kiss on both cheeks.

The anglofrance website provides further advice: 'A smart appearance and punctuality are important and on formal occasions the French will dress up. The French place great importance on dress, the style and quality being as important as the correctness for the occasion. First names are not used at the beginning of a relationship. To do so would indicate pushiness or lack of respect. It is better to wait for the French person to suggest using first names. However, the use of 'tu' and/or first names is becoming widespread but does not necessarily imply informality or closeness among colleagues.'

You have been warned.

Capital ideas

Mark Bomer went on an 18-month secondment to Paris back in 1991. Almost his entire reason for going was, he admits, 'to learn the language properly. I was hopeless.' He came back last September, fluent, with two bilingual children and a trilingual wife, having achieved his ambition.

Mark qualified with BDO Stoy Hayward and still works for the firm. He was 27 when he asked to be moved to France and says that the firm, particularly in the Paris office, took some persuading that someone who couldn't speak the language would give them a good return on their money. In fact, it made perfect sense for BDO to send someone with an intimate knowledge of British corporate finance to France and Mark explains why: 'BDO had lots of UK and US clients making acquisitions in France and the way you buy a company in France is very different to how you do it in the UK. We wanted to be able to guide them through the process, giving a UK service on a French transaction.'

But the move wasn't without its teething problems. 'The language was clearly an issue,' he says, 'so I had to jump in the deep end and make sure everyone spoke French with me because in the early days a lot of them spoke better English than I did French.'

And it wasn't just the language that Mark and his family immersed themselves in. 'We were very keen not to get into an ex-pat community because we thought we were just going out for 18 months, so we wanted to be as French as we could. We lived outside Paris in a village and made lots of friends. Having children definitely helps, especially when they get a little bigger and start going to school.'

As far as cultural differences go, Mark's primary example happens also to be what he enjoyed most about working and living in France: 'The French take time and care to live well,' he says, 'which doesn't necessarily mean they don't work hard, but they take time out to live.' The British, on the other hand, he feels are under pressure to work flat out.

This quintessential difference between the two nations was flagged up for Mark on his very first job. 'When I first arrived, there was a difficult transaction going on and [we] were under a great deal of pressure. My team of French people made it very clear that there was no question of not stopping for an hour at lunch and going to a restaurant and eating properly, which at the time I found quite shocking.'

But it was a lesson that he was to take completely to heart. 'It's easy from a British point of view to think it's because [the French] are lazy and don't take their work seriously enough…but I wouldn't mind betting that the French team at the end of the day would have done a better job than an English team because a proper break is not counter-productive.'

Mark believes that the length of time he spent in France is testament to the secondment programme's success. 'If you really integrate well, you end up feeling unsure where your home is because you get completely under the skin of the host country.'

But he did eventually 'come home' and the reasons were alarmingly brutal. 'You live very well up to a certain level. You earn more, you get more, and the basic infrastructure is very strong - health service, public transport and so on - but there comes a point where there is no reason to earn more money because you're taxed at 80%.' That said, he admits that it was a 'difficult decision,' and describes the experience as 'magical'.

Halfway there

PricewaterhouseCoopers' Stephen Hart had a head start as far as closing the cultural gap between Britain and France is concerned because, as he says, 'I had the luck of having a French mother.' So, no problems with the language there. Or so you would think. But interestingly, Stephen's motivation was actually very similar to Mark's. 'As my career progressed and I started distancing myself from the family home, I realised that I was either going to have to actively capitalise on the advantage that I already had, or lose it altogether through lack of use,' he explains. 'I therefore applied for a secondment as soon as possible in order to

combine my personal language development with obtaining experience of capital city (rather than regional office) audit work.'

Stephen qualified with KPMG in 1996 and it was with this firm that he got his foot in the door of the French job market. 'Two days after being notified of my finals result, I was in the car on the way to a secondment to KPMG's Paris office.'

After 18 months spent auditing in Paris, he decided that he needed new professional challenges, but wasn't ready to return to the UK. Thus he looked for new opportunities and through a UK-based recruitment firm, found a position in the then 50-person dedicated transaction services department of Coopers & Lybrand in Paris.

That was four years ago and since then PwC's transaction services have grown to become a market leader in France, with clients including major French investment banks, as well as the French activities of UK banks, insurance companies and fund managers.

Stephen's work is not only based in France, however. 'Given our international client portfolio, we are also involved (in association with our other offices around the world) in the coordination of a significant number of crossborder transactions, both from parties wishing to invest in France, and French interests looking outwards to overseas investments. Given this client portfolio, together with the fact that the majority of the larger transactions are financed by international banking institutions, the advantage of having English as a first language and being able to produce reports in English quickly becomes clear.'

Stephen lives right in the heart of the city, not far from the Arc de Triomphe, with his French wife - 'continuing a family tradition' - and extols the virtues of the place. 'Paris has a clear advantage over London on at least two fronts: the weather, and the ability to get out of the city very quickly and have easy access to both the coast and the countryside, including the mountains for skiing in winter.'

Even though he is half-French, there are elements of the UK work ethic that Stephen prefers. 'My memories of the UK are that you went into work early to work hard and well, and then to get out as quickly as possible in order to do something else, like sport, or the pub. I must admit, I liked this approach,' he says.

'The French tend to arrive later, and leave later with, admittedly, something more substantial than a sandwich at lunchtime - though it's been a very long time since I last had lunch at a top restaurant with the stereotypical glass of red wine. We do, however, also enjoy the occasional half pint - no pints over here - at the local brasserie every so often.'

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