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Working in France: Is it really the walk-in-the-park, Gauloise in hand experience you imagine it to be?

By Marion Senant

The hard reality of working in France
When it comes to working in France, foreigners often imagine a long year of holidays filled with a couple of days work, sandwiched  between extended lunch pauses… the reality is less appealing and much more… realistic. Let’s face it; fitting into the French job market as a foreigner is far from easy.
I popped the question to an English friend the other day: “what do you think life is like for an Englishman working in France?” “I don’t even think an Englishman can actually work in France”, he answered, “France is so protective with its jobs!” I remind him that, being part of the EU, France is not allowed to prevent European foreigners from working there, but it made me think. Do I actually know of any foreigners working in France, except for the waiters and waitresess in a few Parisians pubs and a couple of high profile expatriates?
The truth is, the only foreigners I know who are living in France are either self-employed or working for big Anglo-Saxon companies… in an English speaking environment. Basically, it seems near impossible for a foreigner to be hired in a French company if he doesn’t speak perfect French. In London, most French people do speak English, or at least they learn it fast, whilst working. In Paris, using work to get to learn the language is not an option.
But once you have overcome the language barrier and found a job, there are still many little differences to get used to before you can  fit into French working life:
In England, a “regular” job is generally considered a 9-to-5 job. In France, the working day is usually a bit longer, with average working hours lasting from 9-to-6 and people often leaving work well after 7pm. “Yes, but this extended work day is surely cut in two by a long lunch pause”, you might think? Sorry to disappoint you, but this is no longer true, at least not in Paris. In fact, lunch breaks often consist of a sandwich or a salad in front of your computer screen. As for the other breaks during the day, replace mugs of tea by plastic coffee cups and you will have a realistic glimpse of a day at work in France.
your new french work colleagues?
Your new French work colleagues?
But it is not only a difference of schedules. Hierarchy in France is something you have to respect and a career takes a lot more time to build. Most of the time, you get to have your boss’s job once he (most of the time it’s a he) gets himself promoted or retires… This leads to thousands of frustrated workers. They wait so long to take responsibility that, when they finally get promoted, they have lost their enthusiasm. Others, who don’t want to wait, often decide to move to a different country… England for instance.
One thing that you do have in France, however, is job security; something that English people often comment on enviously.  Behind this very French concept are a bunch of laws so complicated that it is almost impossible, or at least very pricey, to make someone redundant. Shortly after I arrived in England, a friend of mine working in the City was asked to leave at the end of a work day. In ten minutes, he went from being employed to being escorted out of the building. For French people, this way of being sacked is un-imaginable. Being made redundant often takes months, and involves union representatives, and even sometimes a lawyer.
But this inability to let people go has turned into a vicious habit. When you can’t fire people, you try to make them quit. Work harassment became a tragic reality in France last year with a series of work-related suicides at the French equivalent of BT, France Telecom. A recent survey found out that 66% of French people think that stress and pressure have increased at work over the past few years. Having a boss that makes you miserable fortunately does not always lead to suicide, but the French are the highest consumers of antidepressant in the world…
On a less depressing note, there are upsides to working in France. For starters, people tend to separate their professional life from their private life much more. Having a pint at the end of a working day with your colleagues is not something usual. Most of the time, relationships at work tend to be restricted to having  lunch in a nearby café with one of your co-workers once a week, or a cigarette in front of your office entrance. “Not very sociable”, you might say, but this lack of personal relationships can also be a good thing. For example, when you’ve been out and had too much to drink the previous night, you can always justify the shadow under your eyes the next morning by the fact you have been ill all night… nobody was there to witness you dancing on the table of your favourite bar a few hours ago. Just make sure none of your colleagues are friends with you on Facebook unless you want those nasty shots of your dishevelled self knocking them back shared with the whole office over morning coffee…


23/01/2012 - lamareerouge said :

I too live in France and have only managed 8 months on a CDD contract in spite of having a dying skill that no will even teach anymore but yetis still in demand. There are simply not the young people he wish to put the time and they do not have the patience. I finally went to an interview some 6 hours drive from my home, and the first thing the man before me said was, "Oh, your a woman. What does your husband do?". When I explained I was not married and it was not pertinent to my skills he stated he had once employed a female and apparently she only stayed 10 years before moving off down South because of her husband's work. I applied for this job over a year ago and they are still advertising to fill the position. They will not even give me freelance work. Do not be a female in France. I am not English or French and I speak French fluently, no accent but I was asked my place of birth, what passport I held and if I intended to have children. It is frustrating that being a mature female, they still think I want children and this also frightens them off. I love the French country, I have good and loyal French, Dutch and English friends but the culture is extremely provincial, and even say backward. Those of us who have made France our home, spend our money outside France because France does not allow competition in business. Look at the mobile phone costs, most expensive in Europe I believe. Prices of clothes, shoes, perfume. The list is endless. House prices are good and that is about it.

29/09/2010 - saidpja said :

I have been living in England for around 14 years now, and have not had a thought about coming back to France.... i changed carriers few times since to enjoy and grow in the field I am interested... Unlike Old France opportunities, diversities, creativities are welcome and encouraged...

13/07/2010 - stuartareed said :

Hi Marion your article really is an accurate reflection of the realities of living and finding employment in France.

Highly qualified with almost 20 years of work experience and continual employment behind me, I managed just 6 months of work in Paris in a 3 year period. During this time I made almost 500 job applications (not just a numbers game, these were all for jobs that I wanted to do at a salary I could live on) and even some candidature spontanees. Yet in the latter case, despite 4 or 5 rounds of interviews there was never a job at the end of the process.

What is also annoying is the number of positions that are clearly "full-time" but are only offered on a temporary (CDD) basis - once again a employers ruse to avoid them having to employ someone full time (CDI) and having to pay the associated higher taxes.

In the end I finally gave up on France and decided to look for work in the UK. Imagine my surprise that within 5 weeks had 2 job offers on the table.
And whilst this meant the disruption of leaving my family in Paris to travel back to the UK each week, the attitude of French "employers" made this inevitable.

In short, being in France for 3 years has not been a great career move for me, and based on my experience, I would advise anyone against moving there unless they have a confirmed job to go to, or that their French is excellent but they are still prepared to take a drop in salary for the "pleasure" of working in the country.

Not long ago I smiled when read that France still has the highest standard of living in Europe. It forgot to mention the realities of finding a job in the first place.

15/06/2010 - miguel_krauss said :

This article is completely true!!! I have been living in France for 4 years and the only thing I want is to move to London!!!. I left my “more or least” good paid work at a multinational company in order to have much more time to send applications to England whilst improving my English.

Collegues ??? Workers in France are so scared about losing their jobs that when you are working in France you feel as if you were in the battle field, everyone's trying to keep safe no matter how!!!, so the famous French work security is very relative.

Depressive yes!!! Absolutely yes!!! Even I became a consummer of antidepresssant during the last year.

Looking for a job in France, as a foreign worker is a big "galère", except if you are hired by an American or England company based in.
Prejudice is huge in France. When a foreign worker get some rare interview (after having sent at least 300 CV'S) people are focused more in the accent and the origins than in skills....

In my case, since I've decided to move to London by sending some few applications, I have to handle every single day a lot of calls and a propositions from different England companies willing to work with me. Even if my English needs to be improved, employers seem to be more interested in my international profile, my qualifications and my skills.
Multicultural ... I have to say that France has lost all its attractiveness for foreign high qualified workers just to became a country of migrant transition...
It's very sad tough.


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