21 Things That are Different about French Employees

French employees are different in many ways. French employment law is unique, French employees have some unique and perhaps unexpected priorities. It can be quit difficult for non-French companies to adapt their work practices to French employees and especially difficult for non-French managers to adjust.

  1. Given the security that a permanent contract (Contrat de travail indéterminé or “CDI”) offers, many French workers tend to think in terms of their employment contract, rather than type of job. It is common that people mention that “I have a CDD” or “I have a CDI” before stating what their actual position is. French staff have a very strong preference for a “CDI” type employment contact, not just because of the long-term job security that it offers, but also because this type of contract is often a requirement in order to secure a mortgage or even to rent an apartment.
  2. French job titles tend not to sound just as impressive as their American equivalents. Most senior managers will simply be known as a ‘directeur‘.
  3. French businesses have to pay up to 50% of their workers’ monthly public transportation costs. The law applies to all employees who have a monthly pass for the bus, metro, train, RER or tramway.
  4. It is customary in many French companies that employees are paid a “13th month” of salary in December as a bonus. French people tend to think of wages in terms of a monthly salary rather than an annual total as people would do in the Anglosphere. Therefore this extra “month” is often overlooked by employees when they compare their wages to those of their peers in other nations, despite the fact that they may well receive the “bonus” as a matter of course every year!
  5. Many French companies are obliged to provide employees with restaurant vouchers. These “Tickets restos” are tax efficient and very much appreciated by staff. The vouchers are mandatory only in cases where the workplace has no on-site cafeteria or self-service kitchen. When required, the cost of the vouchers is split 50/50 between workers and the company. Approximately 3.5 million workers in France are currently in receipt of restaurant vouchers.
  6. French workers benefit from a guaranteed minimum hourly wage, which is called the SMIC (Salaire Minimum Interprofessionnel de Croissance). It is illegal for a company to pay an employee less than this level. The gross SMIC is currently €9.88 (01/2018), from which taxes and social security charges are subtracted (at this wage level, roughly 23%). The SMIC is reviewed each year on the 1st July.
  7. It is often said that the French value quality of life over money, therefore congés annuels, or annual vacation leave, is extremely important to the majority of French employees. Both the total number of vacation days and the length of time of some vacations is significantly higher in France than in most other countries. The basic principle is that all employees are entitled to two and a half days of paid leave per month worked. Ordinarily, this will result in five weeks of paid vacation annually (NB Somewhat unusually, Saturdays are considered to be ‘working days’ in the calculation). Holidays can be taken either during a specific period or in agreement with the employer.
  8. A significant proportion of the French labour force remain very attached to the concept of a working week being limited to 35 hours, which was first introduced in the 1980s. Simply put, some French employees may never wish to work overtime, which supervisors from other cultures may be unfamiliar with. Non-French managers and supervisors could benefit from training on French cultural norms including insight regarding work hours.
  9. Many employees who work more than the basic 35 hours a week are entitled to take time off in lieu of payment. These in lieu days, known as réduction du temps de travail (RTT), are taken in addition to the congés annuels. This is very common and HR systems are used to track time.
  10. On top of annual leave and RTT, France enjoys eleven national public holidays (Jours fériés)! France’s public holidays are: 1st January, New Year’s Day (Nouvel an, Jour de l’An); Easter Monday in March or April (Lundi de Pâques); 1st May, Labour Day (Fête de travail); 8th May, Victory Day – End of the Second World War (Fête de la liberation); Ascension Thursday, the sixth Thursday after Easter, usually in May (Ascension); Whit Monday (Pentecost), the Second Monday after Ascension, in May or June (Pentecôte); 14th July, Bastille Day (Fête Nationale); 15th August, Assumption (Assomption); 1st November, All Saints’ Day (Toussaint); 11th November, Armistice Day (Fête de l’Armistice); 25th December, Christmas Day (Noël). The only down side is that when national public holidays fall on a Saturday or Sunday they are not ‘moved’ to the closest Monday as they might be in other countries, instead they are effectively ‘lost’ as days off!
  11. When a jour férié, or public holiday, is approaching, workers in France often speak of their intention to “faire le pont”; an expression that literally means to “make the bridge”, yet more often than not this has little to do with construction or engineering! It simply means the common practice of taking one extra day’s holiday off work nearest the actual day off should it fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, to create a four-day break. Some very lucky employees may even have saved enough annual leave and RTT to “faire le viaduc” should the holiday fall on a Wednesday!
  12. Given the security offered by the French CDI contract, it is an extremely difficult and complex process for an employer to dismiss a member of staff who has a permanent employment contract. Even when fully justified, firing a worker can prove to be a protracted and delicate task. Employers are advised to seek professional advice before ever commencing dismissal procedures.
  13. The difficulty involved in dismissing staff means that French employers tend to take maximum advantage of the legal trial period for employees, which is 3 months and can be extended for an additional 3 months. Prudent employers will generally treat this period as an extended job interview. Experienced employers will also be ware that a minority of candidates have been known to work diligently during the trial period only to then reduce their work rate as soon as the trial period has come to an end.
  14. French workers are generally well educated, but it is also fair to say that the education level in some French sectors truly is world class. This would particularly be recognised to be the case in the fields of finance and engineering.
  15. France has a poor reputation for learning foreign languages and was ranked only 37th in the world among non-Anglophone nations for learning English in 2015. The overall picture of English proficiency in Western Europe is not entirely positive. Like its neighbours Italy and Spain, France is behind the European Union average. Although Italy and Spain have both shown some improvements over the past 15 years, France remains rather weak. This is, however, a problem that recent governments have acknowledged and the state education system is now attempting to rectify.
  16. Many French companies often have a very specific view on the exact academic qualifications that are required for a particular position. On some occasions the excellent practical experience and proven track records of candidates may be overlooked because their academic qualifications, even when acquired years before, do not correspond exactly with the company’s original wish list. This offers opportunities for foreign employers who are prepared to spot talent and to hire and promote applicants based on ability rather than qualifications.
  17. French employees are very sensitive to the employment terms and conditions. Any non-French company setting up in France needs a recruitment agency to find staff, but more importantly to advise about the other aspects of hiring employees in France like benefits, procedures, and compliance with complex employment law.
  18. Despite the their reputation for often going on strike, potential employers will be relived to hear that French workers are not in fact the most frequent strikers in Europe. That honour belongs to the workforce of Cyprus, who go on strike almost three times as much as the French!
  19. In spite of the generous holidays that the French workforce are entitled to, or perhaps even because of them, France can be very proud of its productivity. When determined as GDP per capita data divided by the average number of hours worked, French rates of productivity are among the best in the world.
  20. Although Sunday trading laws have been somewhat more relaxed since 2015, it is true to say that France, as a nation, is somewhat reluctant to work on Sundays. Other than in the food service industry, French towns and villages remain rather sleepy on Sundays with little opportunity for shopping. Despite France’s strong secular tradition, Sunday remains a “day of rest”!
  21. For the French, cuisine is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and lunch has always been their most important meal of the day. Although the fabled two hour lunch that French workers once customarily enjoyed over a carafe of wine is largely now a thing of the past, French people still take their lunch very seriously. Unlike in many English speaking nations where lunch may mean a 30 minute break with a sandwich that was hastily prepared before leaving home that morning, the average worker in France pauses for between 45 minutes and an hour. Meal times are rigidly adhered to and standards are high: A high proportion of French workers will ‘eat out’ for lunch and larger companies will be expected to provide a subsidised canteen that offers affordable, healthy and tasty food.

About the Author

The author of this article, Eoin P. Campbell, is an honours law graduate (LL.B) and qualified as a solicitor in 2007. His professional experience includes personal injury litigation, business law, the law of contract, employment law and European law. Eoin is currently lecturing in the law faculty of a prestigious university based in Lyon, France.

N.B. Please note that the information contained in this article is intended to be advisory only. If you intend to commence employing people in France you are advised to discuss the issues raised above and any concerns you may have with an employment professional.