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