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Doing Business in France

Doing business abroad brings with it cross cultural challenges. Prior to travelling to another country it is the norm not to consider factors such as differences in etiquette, business practices, negotiation techniques and business protocol. However, it is precisely these areas one should be addressing before doing business abroad if the success of the trip is to be given a better chance.
This short manual to doing business in France is offered as an introductory guide to some of the above mentioned areas where cultural differences can impact business proceedings. It is in no way a comprehensive summary of all 'doing business tips' nor meant to stereotype the French. Rather, it highlights some important key areas for consideration when doing business in France.
Public life in France can appear quite formal. This is manifest in greetings, manners and the language. When doing business in France, the adhesion to protocol and a formal means of communication can appear stuffy, cold and unfriendly. However, despite appearances, business takes place on two levels. On the surface it appears orderly, professional and uncluttered by personal relationships. Yet, beneath the surface, a complicated network of personal relationships, ties, alliances and factions actually drives things.
Perhaps no other culture so highly regards its language as a symbol of itself. The French are extremely proud of their language. This pride makes the use of French a sensitive issue. Above all the inability to speak even some French may be counted against you. It is important to at least learn some basic civilities prior to doing business in France.
Doing Business - Meetings & Greetings
Shake hands when meeting and parting. In social settings with friends kissing is the norm. 'Faire la bise' refers to the little air kiss people trade upon meeting.
When doing business in France, use first names only after being invited to do so. Use Monsieur or Madame followed the surname. The French will sometimes introduce themselves using their surname first, followed by their first name. If you speak French stick to the vous form until told to use tu.
Dress well. The French draw information on people based on their appearance. Your business attire is a reflection of your success and social status. Always try to be tasteful, stylish and conservative. Women are advised to dress simply but elegantly. Accessorizing and wearing make-up is practised widely by business women.
Doing Business - Cuisine
The French are passionate about food, so lunches are the norm when doing business in France. These usually consist of an appetizer, main meal (with wine), cheese, dessert and coffee and normally take up to two hours. This is a time for relationship building.
Do not begin eating until the host says, 'bon appetit'. Pass dishes to the left, keep wrists above the table and try to eat everything on the plate. Be careful with adding salt, pepper or sauces to your food as this may imply you find the food tasteless. If eating in a restaurant, the person extending the invitation always pays. Be sure to reciprocate this gesture.
Doing Business - Meetings and Negotiations
If you plan to travel to France on business, meetings should be booked in advance in writing or by phone. Holidays in France are usually taken in July or August so these months should be avoided. Christmas and Easter are also periods where business winds down.
Punctuality is a relaxed affair. Being fifteen minutes late is perfectly acceptable and the further south you travel, the more flexible this becomes.
When doing business in meetings remain polite and courteous at all times. Avoid personal questions. Try not to appear over friendly as this may be construed as suspicious. The French communication style is direct, questioning and probing. Ensure you have a carefully planned proposal that has been logically organised and presented. The French are most receptive to low-key, rational presentations and arguments that clearly highlight benefits.
Negotiations can become passionate. Argumentation is not meant to be confrontational but rather a means to analysing your case logically. You will be judged on your demeanour combined with your ability to present your arguments coherently. Avoid exaggerations as the French do not appreciate hyperbole.
If a stalemate has been reached when doing business, the French will continue to state their position. The emphasis is on you to take apart their arguments and approach the issue from a different angle. Similarly, once decisions have been reached the only means of overturning it would be through a well argued defence of your case.