Is there such a thing as the French Dream?

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When my British friends and family tell me “you’re practically French now,” I have to say, I am still a little surprised. It’s true that I think that having lived in France for most of my adult life after spending my childhood and student years in the UK, I don’t consider myself as either British or French. I’m certainly more European than anything and my culture is a real mixture of Anglo thinking and Mediterranean living.

It’s true that as I go about my daily life in France I have the impression that my “Englishness” goes practically unnoticed. I am able to blend into the physical Mediterranean landscape and on a good day my Anglo lilt is often mistaken for some other accent whose origins are anywhere north of Provence.

I have embraced French life and culture as though it was my life’s vocation and I remember dreaming about life in France since I was a teenager. But as I move towards the half-way mark (i.e. more of my life spent away from the UK than in it), I ask myself whether the French dream has – and does – live up to expectations.

Along with the lifestyle, climate and culture, France has a good economic flag to fly and I can quote any number of projects and achievements that makes me delighted to live in the country. I still marvel with admiration every time I step on the TGV in Aix en Provence to arrive only 3 hours later in the capital.

And then there’s the people themselves. When I hear the French talking about the French, they often mention how much they complain. “It’s an essential part of our culture,” one of my friends tells me. And it is true that the appointment of a new government, a new football manager or a new boss is often an open invitation to criticism.  I revel in the passionate discussions I hear (and participate in) at dinner tables and admire how the French are fervent debaters in whatever is the subject of the moment.

Yet, does all this discussion exist just for discussion’s sake or is it part and parcel of their natural resistance to change? Keeping what you have is a very strong French value and I have witnessed many battles on this subject fought and lost over the years. But having an opinion and expressing it is as important a part of French culture as is resisting whatever law, rule or idea is put down in front of them. So when you combine these three aspects of the culture, you get what some people perceive as “French arrogance”. I see it more as a way of being heard, included and participating in the change process without feeling that they have been subjected to it. It doesn’t mean that things don’t change, they just take a whole lot more time to do so than many other cultures are used to.

And change is definitely on France’s agenda. The recent electoral swing to the left has generated new hope for many, in spite of many of the unpopular changes and reforms that Hollande and his government are about to put into place.

Irrespective of their political beliefs, most of my entourage is relieved to see the back of Sarkozyism and as one person put it, unlike Sarkozy, Hollande actually went to political school so he knows how to govern. This is one of the first cultural gulfs I had to deal with when arriving in France that bounces back at me time and time again. In other words, if you went to the right school, you’re fit for the job. You can have all the potential in the world, but if you don’t have the qualifications, your skills and experience are worth little unless you are given the opportunity to prove otherwise.

And in the employment context I think this still rings very true today. An American friend of mine went for an interview recently at a recruitment agency. When asked what kind of job she would like to apply for, given her experience in a number of senior positions spanning over a 20 year career in France, she explained that there are any number of positions she could fill. Launching into a justification of the unstable job market today the recruiter explained: “employers are taking fewer and fewer risks and are therefore clinging more and more onto the qualifications of their potential employees as a reliable form of employability. And because of this you don’t really fit into any one particular position.”

Contrary to many of my French counterparts, as I was growing up, I was encouraged to seek out 3 or 4 different careers throughout my lifetime and challenge and variety is still something I cherish today. With my go-out-and-get-it attitude, at 16 I began my retail Saturday job career. But today’s young French have not been brought up in the same way. Work experience from an early age is a rarity, but becoming a necessity. The degree in the pocket is not enough to secure the long term employment that their parents or grandparents were guaranteed.

Many are seeking opportunities overseas as one alternative. In France, instead of falling into jobs that are the perfect match for their qualifications, many youngsters are obliged to work for virtually (and sometimes) nothing to gain the experience and improve their chances of being a better candidate than the other thousands applying for the same job. And that’s if the job hasn’t already been ear-marked for someone who knows someone who knows someone…

This may seem a pretty gloomy outlook, but France is still advocating the merits of its education system as the key to employment success. Last week Le Monde was still encouraging the diploma route by headlining articles such as “a degree is still the best employment guarantee” (Le Monde 05 July 2012) and  “job opportunities are more and more rare without qualifications” (Le Monde 14-16 July 2012). But this clearly isn’t enough for young people seeking jobs in France today.

It is not as simple as saying it’s all about where you went to school or who you know, but this is definitely a factor that is still influencing the French job market today. Over the years I have learned the art of successful networking in France and most of my work today is based on referrals. You may argue that this is the case in many countries, but the “who-you-know” aspect is still very prevalent.

When a friend of mine explained to me recently that she has bid for 5 big tenders this year and won none of them, she later discovered that the work had been allocated before the bid was published. I can’t help asking myself in France today where the emphasis lies between striving for excellent results and building excellent relationships.

Living in the South of France, the latter is so often the most natural option. Some of my most successful business meetings have taken place in sites of natural beauty, or whilst sharing some gastronomic moment with a client. This aspect of French culture lends itself so well to relationship building and it’s no surprise that it has been one of the more popular ways of enticing inward investment over the years. But for how long can it ride on its epicurean lifestyle, sublime climate and exquisite scenery?

I am actively involved in the Mediterranean Anglo-American Business Network where for the past 5 years we have been holding monthly networking events in English. We attract many French native speakers who like the refreshing alternative to doing business. And we are successful because we have taken the best of all of our cultures.  We have combined the qualities of the French culture (relationship building, good food, drink, climate, etc…) and put them into an Anglo business context (sociable, casual, no-fuss straight-talking) to produce what seems to be an attractive way for the French to do business.

The success of our events brings me back to the question of the French dream. I think that it is still worth pursuing, albeit a little bit differently. Living and working in France has brought me so many challenges on a practical level, especially running my own business. But in spite of the difficulties many of us are facing today in France, “enjoying life” still holds very strongly as a French value. It hasn’t hindered but helped my business. It has helped me live my dream on both a personal level and professional level and I have learned so much from both the culture and its people. It’s what brought me here all those years ago, and, if change is on the agenda for France, it’s one thing the French should never change.

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One Response

  1. Renaud says:

    Thank you for your article. What has interested me, is that you don’t criticize France and French people as most English would end up doing in such editorials, concluding that France should change and do as English do.
    Being French, I would like to criticize French people and congratulate English people. I think it is much more pleasant to do business with English people.

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