Doing Business Abroad: The French Example

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Although this article deals mainly with doing business with French firms, the experience gained can lead to lead to doing business in other countries. When doing business abroad, ask yourself, What effect does the countrys history and its place in the world economy have on conducting business? What about typical organizational dynamics and power structure?

It often helps to understand the evolution of circumstances leading to the current environment. To gain understanding of the French culture, you must understand their view of history--the role of France and the US.

In terms of expansion of civilization and global trade, the US is a relative newcomer. For centuries, France dominated worldwide commerce. The rise of the British after Napoleon's fall, the decline of the French language as the global language of business, the Japanese emergence on the European economic scene, and--perhaps most insidious of all to the French--the Americanization of the world--contribute to feelings of resentment. Despite these recent setbacks, much of French industry still carries the view that the French have the intellectual right to succeed globally.


The French language is well-suited to their culture. In conversation, the French are exact, logical, formal, and quick (one of the most rapidly spoken languages on earth at 350 syllables a minute vs. English at 200). The precision of the language leaves little room for ambiguity or hedging. French systems tend to reward those who use their language well. Most people in leadership positions within French firms can be expected to be extremely articulate, think rapidly on their feet, and engage the full spectrum of their language. Conversely, many Frenchmen and other Europeans view American English as full of tough talk, quips, exaggeration, and preoccupation with getting action. Some linguistic historians theorize that this situation in the US evolved due to heavy immigration to congested Eastern cities when bluntness and overstatement were needed to communicate among non-English-speaking peoples.

Organizational Dynamics

French companies are hierarchical, moderately steep, pyramidal organizations. Decision-making is more centralized and occurs higher in the organization than is typical in the US. The CEO normally has extensive powers. French managers will typically have less specialization, wider horizons on the business, and a better grasp of issues than their English-speaking counterparts in the US or Great Britain. The manager's status is based on family, age, education, and professional qualifications, with an emphasis on speaking ability and mastery of the French language.

An elitist education system funnels individuals of various classes into a highly structured selection process with extremely difficult entry hurdles at each level. The system creates a life-long club of executives who maintain relationships, share ideas and information, and often see to each other's interests. This system goes significantly beyond any US "old boys' network" to advance its members while preserving the system.

In general, the French are more focused on status and rank than are Americans. Their strong focus on creating organization structures is matched by an ability to evade and supplant them with informal parallel practices: "Une regle rigide, une pratique molle" ("a strict rule, but a lenient practice"). Opaque organizations result: clear structures with many ad hoc, pragmatic procedures with implicit rules and tacit understandings. To Americans, this creates a seemingly paradoxical, hard-to-understand business approach.

Much of the real work is done through informal channels. Seeming organizational slack in French companies can facilitate power struggles. Generally, power and authority are regarded as coming from the person exercising them, not from his/her role in the organization. Personal interactions drive a lot of the work and decisions. Individualism is strong.

Hopefully, this example will help you in researching the culture of the country in which you will be doing business.

Cherie Zeringue, MSME, BSBmE, MBA, owns Growth Solutions, a marketing and sales consulting company in Salt Lake City, Utah. Contact her at

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