For many Americans, the prospect of France is a romantic one, with hugely popular films and TV series like Amelie, Chocolat and Emily in Paris cementing France’s reputation for glamour, charm and indulgence. But while the appeal of France’s lifestyle and culture is undeniable, the country also offers something that’s less well known – a swath of business opportunities ready to be seized by internationally-minded American entrepreneurs.
With an estimated 4,500 American companies already operating in France, it’s clear that the country is an attractive prospect to American business people, and there is the potential for great success in La République française. However, if you want to start a business in France (or expand there) as a US citizen, it always pays to know as much as possible beforehand in order to plan thoroughly, avoid common pitfalls and give your business the best chance of thriving.
As the third-largest economy in Europe (and seventh in the world), there is a long list of reasons why France is so appealing to business people, some of which include:
- France is a vibrant and diverse nation that boasts a skilled workforce, a large consumer population and access to the world’s largest trading bloc through its membership of the European Union.
- It is also welcoming and business-friendly, with the French government offering financial incentives to both new and established businesses and investing heavily in research and development.
- France has a strategically useful location buttressed by a highly developed transport infrastructure, greatly contributing to ease of travel and transit both within and outside of the country. London, for example, can be reached in under 2 and a half hours by Eurostar from Paris.
- France isn’t only large in terms of its economy – by surface area, France is the largest country in Europe and is made up of thirteen regions that all represent unique opportunities for entrepreneurs. It also borders eight countries and has a Channel, Atlantic and Mediterranean coast.
- An international centre of business, the Paris region enjoys global status as a major business hub, and is the number one region in Europe for hosting the world’s top 500 corporate headquarters.
Five Tips For Starting Your Business in France
One: Be prepared to navigate bureaucracy
For foreign company founders from outside the EU, the EEA or Switzerland, there are predictably some i’s to dot and t’s to cross when setting up a company in France, and the process can take some time. That being said, however, France is welcoming enough to entrepreneurs that you may find there are fewer hoops to jump through than you first expect, and there are many resources you can access to ease the process.
Anyone can establish a business in France by taking steps such as registering a business address and opening a bank account in the country, but if you would like to move to France to embark on your new venture you should apply for a long-stay visa known as the “Entrepreneur/Self-Employed” (VLS-TS) temporary residence permit.
Eligibility is determined via factors such as your ability to provide evidence that you will be engaging in an economically viable activity during your stay, and when it has been approved, the visa authorises residence for 12 months. During this time, you are allowed to live in France and engage in the commercial activity that you have outlined in your application.
This will involve a trip to the French consulate, of which there are ten across major cities in the USA. Once established, you will have to register your French business according to the correct category of your enterprise. It is also important to bear in mind that France has particular regulations across various business sectors and employment practices, and that corporate banks in France require minimum capital investments.
Two: Start learning the language
With a population that has originated in every corner of the globe, multilingualism is not unusual in the USA – one in five US adults speak a language other than English at home, (of which Spanish is the most common). But while the USA has no official language, it’s fair to say that English is the de-facto, and most particularly in the business world.
It is also the case that English is the most widely understood language in the EU, and a significant proportion of Europeans speak English as their second language (with an impressive 25% able to hold a conversation in two additional languages to their mother tongue). What’s more, 39% of French people report they are able to speak English, and many ex-pats move to the country without being able to speak French.
Despite this, it would be wrong to assume that you can easily default to English and thrive while running a business in France. The population of France primarily speaks French in both personal and professional contexts, and the French people have considerable language pride.
English might be widely spoken in business circles, but demonstrating your willingness to learn and use French phrases of greeting will be greatly appreciated, and you should bear in mind that proficiency in English is not a given. Over time, many ex-pats discover that shaping up their French language skills is key to taking advantage of everything the country has to offer.
You should also account for the fact that French is the only accepted language for official documents and contracts, and as 61% of French people don’t speak English, you will need a plan for smoothing over language incompatibilities in your business operations.
Three: Consider your new audience
In many important ways, France is not vastly different from the US, but it is still important not to underestimate cultural differences when setting up or expanding a business here. While certainly smaller than the US, it’s also important to remember that France is far from small by European standards, and like the differences between US states, there is significant regional variability across the country.
Whether it’s something simple such as the greater prevalence of smoking amongst French adults (around 33% versus 12% in the US) and the lack of a widespread tipping culture, or more complex subtleties in language, politics and history, there are many things that may be surprising about France as an American. This is why we would suggest seeking the advice of those who know the country well in many points of your business to understand how it may land with a French customer base.
There are also differences in laws and regulations which may affect your business, so it’s always worth doing thorough research as you draw up your French business plan to identify and account for factors which may not apply in the USA.
Four: Understand France’s working culture
American working culture is rather set apart from its European friends, with US citizens generally working longer hours, having less vacation time, and eating lunch (if they don’t skip it) at their desks. It also isn’t unusual for people to take calls and answer emails outside of work hours, and employers tend to have more flexibility when it comes to hiring and firing.
The French, on the other hand, tend to have a more leisurely pace of life which is facilitated by both government-mandated workers’ protections and the expectations of their working population at every point of the pay scale. This may take some adjustment when running a business and is something you’ll need to plan around – but the upside is, if you have chosen to live in France, you’ll get to enjoy this slower pace of life too!
Some things to take into account regarding French working culture are:
- The French will take their lunch break away from their desk, so unless you organise a specific lunch trip, this is a bad time for calls, meetings and emails (if you need an immediate response).
- They don’t only have significantly more holiday entitlement than Americans usually enjoy, they actually take it (whereas the average US employee who receives paid vacation only actually takes 54% of the allotted time each year.) This is usually most evident in July and August, when business slows down considerably, and as many employees will book more time off around public holidays, it pays to plan around these times of year.
- Since 2017, managers and employees of companies with more than 50 staff have not been required to answer emails outside working hours, and employees in smaller companies are likely to follow suit.
- French corporate operations are, for the most part, very hierarchical. When doing business with another company, take the time to understand the chain of command to ensure you are talking to the right people in order to get results.
- Hiring in France is an expensive proposition. Employers must account for high individual taxes when determining employee wages and the slate of employment benefits they are expected to provide. While these costs are high, however, people doing business in France tend to be repaid with a skilled and secure workforce.
- Networking is often key to success in the French business world, with personal recommendations often meaning more than accolades and titles. Forging business relationships in France can be more difficult than in America (although the collaborative nature of American business may give you a ready-made advantage), but they tend to last for a long time, making them well worth the effort.
There is a world of opportunity to be discovered by American entrepreneurs who take the plunge and start a business in France, and with proper research, a comprehensive business plan, and that famous American work ethic, success à la française can be well within your grasp.
This post was written by Katya Puyraud, a company formation expert at EuroStart Entreprises, who help entrepreneurs start a business in France and take the headache out of opening a company abroad.