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Friday, February 10, 2012

Working in France - Some Advice from a Veteran

I said yesterday that I would write about getting a job and working in France.  This is my experience as someone who has worked nearly 15 years in this country, almost all of it in IT, and mostly for French companies (two brief exceptions).  Please do not take what I have to say as the final word.  I would strongly advise you to talk to as many people as you can who already work here in your sector and to talk to other long-term residents from your country or people who come from countries that are culturally similar to yours - the experience of a Canadian here may differ a great deal from that of a Russian or a Japanese.  I will divide this subject up into two posts:  General Advice and Links and Resources.  One last word, I don't pretend to be an expert on anything and I am perfectly OK with being contradicted or corrected.  The purpose here is to share experience - it is not to be right.  Sometimes, believe it or not, you learn more by being wrong.  So here goes:

Learn the Language:  Ok this sounds obvious and you can beat me up later for being condescending but every month I encounter migrants who are frustrated and angry because they have good skills but not a good grasp of the language.  Be honest with yourself -  perhaps you have taken French classes in school but are you capable of making a cold call in French to a recruitment company or making it through an interview and getting your point across without irritating the people you want to work with?  You may even be asked to take a test in written French (I was once asked to do this for a consulting position).  These things are not easy in your home country and language and they are doubly difficult in a different context.    But here's the good news:  the French government invests a great deal of time and money in supporting the French language outside of France.  The Alliance Francaise, for example, is a fine organization with chapters all over the world.  They will be delighted to help you, the prices are usually reasonable, and the classes are a mixture of the academic and practical.  I went to them when I first arrived here and took basic conversation classes.  You can also get a tutor.  My best advice is to get a native speaker who does not speak your language very well - it will force you to express yourself in French.  Above all, don't lose heart or think that you can't do it.  We have all learned at least one language successfully and there is no reason you can't replicate that experience with a second or a third even as an adult.

De-skilling:   I want to talk about this one up front because this can come as a very unexpected and unpleasant surprise.  Be prepared in some cases to be offered something that you do not feel is commensurate with your experience and education.   This is very common and is a combination of misunderstandings about a person's experience, difficulty translating education credentials into a French context (what is the equivalent of a Bac +5 in your country?) and language difficulties.  Some credentials simply don't count for much at all in a different context.  I met a very nice Frenchwoman in Japan who was a French lawyer specializing in family law and could not find anything in Tokyo that was even close to what she had done in France.  Not much demand for someone versed in her specialty and frankly it was impossible for her to practice law in Japan - she needed Japanese credentials for that.  Be prepared for this and adjust accordingly.  You might want to take a fairly low-paying job in the beginning until you find your feet.  However, if you do plan to work long-term in your field in France don't get a job teaching your native language (English, Japanese, German) or working in an environment where French is not the main language.  This is a terrible trap because you risk never learning the local language or culture adequately and your options will be very limited for a long time, if not forever.  My best advice is to go the total immersion route.  The pain you feel today will pay off later.

Discrimination:  Whatever country you come from, you are a foreigner here.  Even if you speak the language, chances are that you speak with an accent and cannot simply seamlessly blend in. Like all countries France has people who do not care for foreigners and probably won't hire them.  Period.  Even those that do may treat you differently. Co-workers are another issue.  Chances are very good that you will hear things or be told things about your country of origin that will hurt and anger you.  Some of it comes from ignorance and some is intentional malice.  Try to assume the former and not the latter.  In my own experience I have encountered people who do not like the U.S., do not like Americans and do not care to know them or work with them.  It can be subtle or direct but in both cases there is not much you can do about this kind of discrimination.  If it gets too bad and you have proof, there is usually a union rep you can talk to.  In my experience the best strategy is to counter truly flagrant expressions of distaste with humour and to wait it out.  Over time, people may not change their minds about Americans (or any other nationality) as a whole but they just might decide that you are OK.  Usually, this is what happens with time.  Also in my experience international or European companies can be better if you are foreign because they just have more experience dealing with people from different cultures which means that you are less exotic and therefore less of a target.  I've been not only the only American in my work environment but also the only woman in upper management and I've taken it on the chin for both for years. Not always and not everywhere but it has happened.   Sure, it happens in the home country too, but you are in a much more vulnerable position in your host country and you have less room to maneuver. Don't let it stop you.  In my case I've consoled myself with the fact that, after listening in my youth to groups in the U.S. talk about their experiences with discrimination, I now understand in my bones exactly what they are talking about and why that has to change.

Work culture:  If you do take my advice and work in a French environment, you will notice immediately that the culture is very different.  Differences in how meetings are conducted, how you greet people in the morning (kiss or handshake?), when it's appropriate to send an email or when you should call and a million other things large and small that you will have to learn.  And, in some cases, it's useful to know when you can break the rules and do things differently. But you have to learn the culture before you can know how to do this.  So, in the beginning, be an amateur anthropologist:  listen more than you talk, observe rather than trying to fully participate immediately, and be aware that everything you have learned up to now about how to behave at work is, in this context, questionable at best and may even be entirely inappropriate.  Saying, "I'm sorry," for example, (a pretty standard Anglo-Saxon reflex) is not always a very good idea.  Once you get to know people (or if you have French family and friends) ask if you are unsure about how to react to a situation.  A native won't necessarily be able to tell you "why" but he or she can give you advice about "what to do."  And, above all, don't complain or call the practice or the culture into question.  Even the most sympathetic of your friends and family will probably react badly to your criticism.  Yes, I know that this seems obvious but in a very stressful situation (changing cultures) almost every foreigner I have met (myself included) has lost his or her temper at least once with serious consequences.  There is a very good LinkedIn group and website that I recommend if you want to know more about French work culture called Gestion des risques interculturels.

I'm going to stop there because this post is getting quite long.  Feel free to ask questions or correct me if you have a different view in the comments section.  The main point I'm trying to get across here is simply that working in France is a challenge but for every barrier there is a solution or a way to get around it.  Be prepared, go in with an attitude of humility (ready to absorb and learn) and don't be afraid to ask for help.  Trust me, this is doable.


Lady Dee said...

Interesting and amusing post, especially from my perspective.

Enjoying your blog.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Lady Dee,

Thanks so much for stopping by and reading. I'm delighted that you're enjoying the blog and it gave me a chance to discover yours. I went and read and all I can say is "wow!". Really wonderful writing and your post on the EU, "What Am I doing in This Neighborhood' had me chortling over my afternoon coffee.

All the best to you,


Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria,
Thanks for the detailed description. Since many things that you wrote about are common to me (IT) and my interests (jobs in FR for foreigners), I am really waiting to hear more from you. In particular, it would be great if you share your experience on how to go about talking/contacting potential employers? In my experience, online applications never seem to work (in a couple of cases I heard this directly from the employers).. I shall patiently wait to hear from you on these topics.

Thanks again,

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi K. Yes, that is always a tough one. I'll see what I can come up with this weekend. So many ways to communicate but which ones are the most effective?


Mr GOparigolo said...


Excellent post. Everything makes very good sense, and is well observed.

I'm in the exact symmetrical context (French in San Francisco for a few months now, job hunting), and I believe most of your observation can reciprocate.

The toughest question (seems to be the case for all) is probably which is the best way to network your way in... That's where I stand now at least.


Victoria FERAUGE said...

Mr GOparigolo, Thank you good luck with your job search. I heard that things are getting better in the States.

I have two interviews this week and one was indeed through a contact (someone I had worked with in another context). It really does make an enormous difference.

All the best to you,


Berliniquais said...

It doesn't get too "long" as long as it is entertaining to read :-)

As a Frenchman I'm of course quite curious about what an American has to say about working in France. I was prepared for much more critical a piece, but your advice is quite admirably factual and neutral.

I'm lucky enough to work in an international company with colleagues coming from many countries and backgrounds, and it's true that in this case, there's nothing remarkable at all with being a foreigner... if I should work in a "purely German" environment at some point, I may be in for a few surprises!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thanks JM,

Truth be told I really like working in a French workplace. One of the worst things about being unemployed is that I miss bering kissed in the morning by "mes gars." :-)


Thomas said...

Wonderful post! Very enlightening, certainly something that has been on my mind.

I am an American by culture having grown up in Miami, FL. By nationality I'm French-American, dual passport holder, bilingual, and I have been living and working in Canada for about 7 years now managing a fundraising program. My work permit here expires in July and I have decided not to renew it.

I am currently applying to jobs in France (Paris). Any pointers? Websites? Hell, I'll go right out and ask - want to take a look at my CV?! Anything would help!

Thanks and keep up the great writing.


Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Thomas,

Thanks so much for stopping by. Sure, I'd be delighted to have a look at your CV. Once I know more about your experience and skills I can probably point you to some places to look. I rely a lot on Les Jeudis (oneline job board) but since you are a French citizen I think you can also profit from the services offered by the Pole Emploi (French unemployment office). Good folks and I really appreciate their help.