"The evolving Francophile..."

My husband Jack has always wanted to live in Paris and learn French. I thought it would be good for him to achieve his life time dream. Hence, we moved to Paris in 2008. My first year was difficult. I started "missives" to relieve some stress and chronicle my life so friends back in the US could read what I am experiencing. I currently write about my food and travel experiences, which is my passion.

It is definitely a challenge to live here, but each year it gets easier, and quite enjoyable, in large part because I value friendships over locale. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris as do most Parisians, mais La vie est belle (but life is good)!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Working or starting a business in France?

La Defense, one of the major commercial centers in Paris
This will be one of the hardest visas to obtain. It is a very detailed process, and I am just providing a general overview.  There are several sites that can help guide you through the myriad of paperwork, such as the "Consult France."  First of all, if you are EU citizen, meaning a citizen of any one of the "EU members"  as well as citizens from Andorra, Lichtenstein, and Monaco, you can legally work in any EU country. This article will focus more on Americans trying to find employment in France.

Because of the relatively high unemployment rate, to date 9.6% (wiki), the French want to ensure first and foremost that jobs are given to French citizens.  The French believe that with the influx of immigrants taking any job they can get, so they can get into the system and eventually benefit from the extensive social services, they are becoming quite restrictive of who can enter France on a work visa. And, especially now with the influx of Tunisians from civil war torn Tunisia, they are trying to close their borders.   France is very worried that at some point, it could bankrupt their social services.

So, the hierarchy in finding an employee at this point is: French first, EU citizens second, and then the rest of the world. If an employer can provide proof that they are unable to fill a position by the first two, then they can seek out foreigners outside of the EU countries.  So, net-net an employer must prove that an “American candidate” is more qualified than any one in France or an EU country.  Therefore, the chances for a highly specialized and skilled employee will have better odds.

Work permit:  Getting a work permit or visa is quite difficult. I would recommend seeking out an international company that have branches or offices in France.  Hence, they will do all the necessary paperwork to get your working visa.

You must first obtain a contract draft from a French or a foreign company in France. The employer in France files an application with the appropriate administration for approval, then a visa can be issued by a consulate of France in the U.S.  US citizens must obtain their visa IN the US and cannot receive it in France.

If you are hired by a French company, keep in mind you will be operating under their business practices.  They will take care of all your paperwork; however, what differs is that you will get a final contract after your probationary period.   Now here’s the catch, you have to negotiate a good salary up front, since salaries generally remain the same throughout your tenure.  In the US, pay scales are based on a myriad of different factors such as skill set, experience, education etc. However, the paradigm changes in France.  The French have a different pay scale based on where they went to school, Polytechnique Paris being one of the most prestigious since it is quite difficult to get in.   For example, you could have 5-employees doing the exact SAME job, but their salary pay scale is different because where they went to school dictates their potential earnings. So, since the French are not familiar with some of the U.S. “Ivy” league schools, it is important for you to ensure they know that they are hiring you from e.g., Harvard, Stanford or an equivalent, if applicable.  And, you must negotiate as high as possible upfront.  Because it will be near impossible to renegotiate later in your contract. The general attitude is if you didn’t negotiate upfront and are not happy with your salary structure, than go somewhere else. They don’t believe in retaining employees, since there are people right behind you seeking your job.  However, being sponsored by an employer and obtaining a French working visa does not mean you have to stay with that company. In fact, on the contrary, you have the right to seek employment throughout France.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, education and what school you went to plays a major factor in your ability to move up in the company. For example, only those with specific education are eligible to apply for a managerial job.  Typically, Americans being hired here have the education to pursue managerial jobs, if so desired.  I have French friends who are IT developers in France at the top level of their careers and are stagnant because they don't have that specific degree entitling them to pursue a managerial job. So, basically they're stuck.

However, there is a solution to the salary stagnation (not the education limitation), basically "company-jumping", moving from company to company.  Generally speaking most French do not want to do this, because even though you may have negotiated a higher salary at a new company, you basically start all over with a new probationary period and lack of seniority etc.  Remember, French are resistant to change.  One benefit though for a long-term employee is that it is near impossible to fire someone after their probationary period.

“Auto-entrepreneurs” or “micro-entreprise”:  There is actually only a slight differences between auto-entrepreneurs visa vs. micro-entreprise, since the fiscal status is the same.  Most of the characteristics are about the same. In fact, the tax status etc. applied to a micro-entreprise also apply to auto-entrepreneurs.  The only real differences between them relates to the business registration, tax and social security payment formalities and, to some extent, business rates.

Which do you apply for? Typically if you want to start a business such as a private limited company in France, most people apply for the auto-entrepreneurs, whereas the “micro-entreprise” is more for small businesses or  individuals wanting to set up a “one-person” shop, e.g., an English tutor.  There are large tax differences between the two. Your French tax adviser or lawyer can help you make the best decision.

Here's an excellent link to help walk you through that process, "Starting a business in France."

If you want to start an entrepreneurial business,  you need to obtain a Carte de Commerçant étranger (Foreign Trader’s Card), you cannot run a  commercial business without this card. See "Consult France--FTC."

Student visa:  From my understanding, it is not difficult to come and study in France, since they highly value education and are proud of their academics.  There is a catch, you have to guarantee $600 a month to show financial support; however, the visa will allow you to work temporarily (60% of 35-hours), most students I’ve known either work as au pairs or English teachers.  See "Consult France--Student Visa" for more detailed information.

In some cases, if you are coming to France to pursue a “specialty” or "highly skilled" degree such as in IT (technology), part of the educational program is to intern at one of the many companies. If that company is in need of your special skill set, they will sponsor you and do all the necessary paperwork to hire you.

Marriage and Pacs:  It goes without saying that if you marry a French person, you are eligible to obtain an immigrant visa and allow you to obtain French citizenship. This also allows you to work. There are many benefits to becoming a dual citizenship, e.g., unlimited stay in each country, eligibility to schools at lower costs, etc.  Unlike the US with its draconian and discriminatory DOMA policy, a French PACS (US equivalent of domestic partners) IS recognized as means for obtaining the equivalent immigration rights a spouse (marriage) would confer.  So if you become a “domestic-partner” Pacsé this will allow you to work in France, see "Pac"..  The paperwork is just as plentiful as with other forms of visa.  The difference between the two is that if you separate as a pacsé couple, you simply provide a document to the “prefecture” stating you are no longer a couple, whereas divorce can take years in France.  Also, if you are a same-sex couple, you are not eligible to adopt children.

Language:  Although there are many international companies that conduct business in English, it goes without saying that your chances of finding a job in France are much better if you are bi-lingual in both English and French, and if you know a 3rd language your hiring potential just went up a couple of notches.  This is not only verbal, but written. I’ve known Americans that can speak fluent French; however, their written skills are poor and they have actually lost out on jobs for this reason.  

Learning French has some practical applications

In Summary:  I get asked this question a lot. It’s not an easy answer since there are just too many variables. Many young people come to France thinking they can just live here and find under the table work, and live carefree.  I can’t begin to tell you how often this strategy has failed. There are au pair jobs for families that want their children to be bilingual in English and French, but almost all will ask for "working papers."

The other complaint that I hear from ex-pats is that taxes are very high and salaries are very low; however, their social service structure such as health-care is fantastic. (see my article on healtcare in France).  The reality, healthcare is one less worry and expense employees have to think about. Plus minimum vacation starts at 6-weeks and an average bank employee gets 9-weeks of vacation. So, it's a trade-off.  I may not agree with their business paradigm as to salary structure, or lack of potential to grow within the company, but the trade off is a simpler better quality of life.  The US usually tops the list when it comes to productivity (France is usually in the top 10), but we are workaholics and we are also a consumer society, so we need to earn more money to pay for more "goods" that the French can live without, and we are the country that pays the most out-of-pocket for healthcare!

Although I have never personally gone through this experience since I am retired, I obtained much of this information from friends and through research.  Bonne chance!


  1. great blog!!!

  2. WEll that confirms that should I get to move to Paris, (really!) that I just need to PLAY and forget that work thing.

  3. Great post.
    I've lived in for five years and I've lived there for shorter stints, two months, three months here and there but I've now decided to base myself and my work (I'm a photographer) there full-time. Let the race to the obtain the proper visas begin! I've done it before and I know I have strength to do it again. Thanks for the new info.

  4. Starting a business can be rewarding but also challenging. The best way to succeed is to prepare. There are many resources to help plan or start a business in France.

  5. Great post.Starting a business can be rewarding but also challenging. The best way to succeed is to prepare.Thank you sharing..

  6. Thank you very much for all this information. I think it is not only very accurate but extremely helpful indeed for someone wanting to be an employee.
    Although, from experience as an old employer in this country I can without hesitation say that it is a living hell to even stay in business, let alone actually making any money.
    No comment on french workers and no argument they aren't wokaholics and privilege a better quality of life. But, in my modest opinion, their productivity and work ethics no longer match or deserve the quality of life they DEMAND! Not in the world we live in today.
    Not to discourage anyone, but this has been the stupidest challenge of my life. Bonne Chance, indeed!

  7. Hi everyone.... Looking for a piece of advice!!!! I have been asked by a client operating in France what te actual requirements surrounding the Official Gazette publication relating to (1) moral and sexual harassment, (2) no smoking, (3) smoking area and (4) document unique are... I'm of the opinion this is a requirement to publicise the company policy or details and is not necessarily a statutory notice. Am I correct in saying that (1) and (2) relate to the company policy, (3) details the location of the smoking area and (4) relates to where anyone can obtain a copy of the document unique... Any thoughts? Many thanks, Stuart (stuartharlow@aol.com)

  8. Wow!!! nice blog, I like it so much and the interesting pictures.