The French: A cultural overview
- Always respect the individuality of the French. Never try to put them into categories or make generalizations.
- Remember that France tends to be a polite, formal society. Greetings, small talk, and etiquette are essential.
- Do not be afraid to debate a point in what may seem like a heated, intense discussion. Provided you can back up your argument, you will be respected for your intellectual grasp.
- Respect the hierarchy in French businesses. Be aware that information may not flow easily between hierarchical levels.
The French Context
The French tend to be very well informed about the world, and if you are doing business with them it would help you to have an understanding of their current context.
France is experiencing the impact of fierce cultural, economic, and political winds as a highly contested Presidential election approaches. At this time, no one can be sure of the changes to the body and soul of France, and to Europe as a whole. The Brexit referendum vote in Britain was a blow to the European Union project, but not devastating; Britain was always a lukewarm partner. But can the European Union exist without France?
French Political, Cultural, and Economic Anxieties
- According to a recent poll, the French are the most pessimistic people on earth – 81% of the French believe the world is getting worse while only 3% say it is getting better.
- In another poll, 89 percent said the country was heading in the wrong direction.
- ‘Stagnation’ is a word often used to describe the French economy. French unemployment overall has been at 10 percent for some years – it is at 25 percent for the under-25 year olds.
- France is a country of relatively high taxes and heavy regulation. The French state absorbs 57 percent of GDP. Public spending in France accounts for a greater share of GDP than Sweden.
- The cosmopolitan cities are more at ease with globalization having experienced job growth of 5 percent between 2006 – 2011.
The struggle in France – as in many other Western democracies – is between nationalism and globalization or what some refer to as between a closed or open society.
France is a country with deep insecurities. Following a series of ISIS-related terrorist attacks, a State of Emergency has been renewed four times since 2015.
The largest Muslim community in Europe is in France, and for a growing number of people a cultural rift is widening. Traditional French values like secularism are perceived to be under threat, hence the resistance to the wearing of the hijab and the burkini.
At the time of writing, there appear to be two main candidates for President. The first is Marine Le Pen leader of the right-wing National Front party. She blames outside forces for problems in France, blaming the European Union as an ‘anti-democratic monster’, globalization and trade for threatening French jobs, and immigrants for terrorism and destroying the ‘Frenchness’ of French life.
If Le Pen wins the Presidency, she will call for a referendum on Europe (a possible Frexit) and reintroduce the French Franc.
Le Pen’s most likely opponent is Emmanual Macron who has surged in the polls recently. Described as a Centrist, he sees more openness as the way to make France stronger. He is pro-trade, pro-competition, pro-immigration, and pro-European Union. A relative political novice (with no traditional political party to back him), Macron borrows from the left and right – some deregulation of business and a reduction of the state with a strong defense of social security. He embraces cultural and technological disruption.
And what about Europe?
The share of people in France who see Europe favorably dropped from 69 percent in 2004 to 38 percent in 2016.
That makes Europe less popular in France than in Britain although that doesn’t signal France will leave any time soon. A united Europe is strategically more important to French than the British.
What concerns some commentators is that in getting out of recurring paralysis (l’immobilisme) the French often opt for moments of upheaval rather than incremental change.
If you are currently working with the French or going to do business with them in the near future, demonstrate your own worldly knowledge, especially about France. Expect arguments, but enjoy them!