Think of France and what comes to mind? Wide roads, great-value restaurants, a gentle climate and landscape, rural lifestyle, great pride in national identity and traditions both cultural and social.
Then there are the negative clichés - national arrogance, language inflexibility, unprincipled self-interest, impenetrable bureaucracy, slow working practices.
What’s the truth behind all these myths – and could French life work for you? If you plan to buy property and live in France, either permanently or part-time, it pays to be flexible about embracing the culture and keep an open mind and heart. So find out more about the many different aspects of living in France.
Family is the backbone of French identity and community life, although these days couples marry later and wait longer to have children.
Extended families often maintain close links so grandparents hold the voice of authority and youngsters toe the line for fear of disapprobation.
In big towns and cities this is changing but throughout France you’ll see families lunching out together and taking part in sport and leisure en famille.
In a village or small town, it pays to remember that any two or more people might be related. Even family members who may not talk to each other can consolidate against outside offence!
Routines and Courtesies
Good – and that usually means formal - manners are considered important – and you’re expected to conform. When entering a shop or restaurant or meeting someone, do say Bonjour Madame/Monsieur and always start any conversation in French. The response will usually be more friendly, however limited your language skills.
You may not be accepted by everyone immediately but start by making few cordial contacts and goodwill can spread. The more so if, even as a part-time resident, you show willing to become part of the community.
Outside big towns the custom is still to eat a main meal at lunchtime so most restaurants open strictly between 12 and 2pm. Many shops close for a long lunch then stay open into the evening but supermarkets have longer opening hours.
Living in rural France is the idyllic dream of many and France certainly has much to offer in its villages and hamlets. Most foreigners who buy property in France are attracted to villages, small towns and countryside.
They find a rural life still marked by the rhythm of the seasons, farming traditions and a strong sense of community cemented by the authority vested in the local mayor. Fete days and festivals are celebrated inclusively.
Outsiders may initially be regarded with suspicion but that can soften as their contribution becomes evident – such benefits as restoring a ruined architectural gem or supporting local services like shops and schools.
France differs to the UK in many ways, and the business workplace is no exception to this general rule.
You might feel slightly off balance if, after you find a job in France, you continue to behave at work as you did in the UK. There are some subtle rules to the working life in France, which can be difficult to negotiate if you aren’t aware of their existence. Taking some simple steps to spot and overcome these little differences will lead to a far more positive experience of working in France.
First and most importantly: do your best to learn French. Many French people find it something of a snub if you do not speak their native language, and might treat you with less respect if you try to communicate with them in English. A few lessons at home, before you make final preparations for your move, will set you up well for facing the French work place. Once you are actually in the country, it should not be too difficult to add to your basic level of knowledge – while most people will understand English, they will far prefer to communicate in their mother tongue day to day so you are sure to pick up the language quickly!
Secondly, make sure you know what is expected of you – French employment laws are quite different to those in the UK and they can be quite strict. Your contract with your employers will be open-ended, unless you are providing maternity cover, or you are a seasonal worker. Once fully employed, you will be entitled to five weeks of holiday a year. Additional holiday time is granted for special events, such as the death of a family member, or an employee wedding.
Moreover, working in France only involves working a 35 hour week. Though there are now more flexible laws regarding this strict time limit, you should still be careful about working overtime – you will probably not be paid much in return. On the other hand bear in mind the amount of maternity leave available to working women, the excellent childcare facilities and the efforts to remove formal wage inequalities and you will see that working in France has many positive sides!
Thirdly, while you have a job in France, you should respect the typical rules and customs of the French workplace. Business etiquette involves addressing superiors formally and adopting a fairly conservative approach to business conduct. A more authoritarian style of leadership should be expected and respected; challenge it, and you are unlikely to succeed. The larger the company, the more probable it is that levels of hierarchy will be embedded into the culture. Socialising between these levels is rare, but not unheard of.
So if you decide to find a job in France, you are sure to find yourself fully submerged in la vie à la française. However France is not a place where you can consider working whilst ignoring the local culture. Absorb it and adapt to it. In this way, you’ll be able to all enjoy all the benefits that French working life has to offer!