France is a large, geographically diverse country in Western Europe. It shares borders with Belgium and Luxembourg in the north, Germany and Switzerland to the east and Italy, Monaco, Andorra and Spain in the south. Famous for its cuisine, distinctive culture, magnificent architecture and natural beauty, it’s unsurprising that France is the most visited country in the world, with around 80 million tourists flocking to French shores each year.
As well as a rich cultural heritage, France is also an industrial powerhouse and has the sixth largest economy in the world. France is also considered to be one of the founding fathers of European integration following the Second World War and is one of the most influential EU members.
France is known the world over for its unrivalled contribution to art, literature, philosophy, architecture, politics, language, cuisine and fashion. On the whole French people and are considered to be well-educated, family-oriented, passionate and very, very stylish! France is also a modern, secular democracy with a high standard of living, generous labour laws and a commitment to equality.
From the Pays Basque region in the south to Brittany in the north, French culture varies considerably. However, despite regional differences, on the whole French people take immense pride in their country and are unashamedly patriotic. Indeed, it has been noted by many expats that the closest subject to a French person’s heart is being French.
A leisure time survey by the OECD found the French spend more time eating, sleeping and shopping than any other nation on earth. Relaxing with family, sharing food and conversation is the principal national pastime. As well as food and wine, sport is also high on the list of French passions, particularly football. The French are accomplished footballers and the national team won the FIFA World Cup in 1998.
France’s diverse geography lends itself to countless activities, from holidaying by the Mediterranean or Atlantic coastlines to skiing and hiking in the Pyrenees or French Alps. Paris, which attracts more than 40 million tourists every year, is fairly considered to be the world capital of fine dining as well as being one of the most prominent centres for art, fashion, culture and history in the western world.
Food and drink
France has an unparalleled reputation for its cuisine. Cheese, wine and baguettes are the first things that spring to mind when you think of French food and drink. Indeed, the country produces 450 distinct types of cheese, nearly eight billion bottles of wine per year and the long crisp loaf is a national symbol.
French food is as varied as its geography and there is no one national dish. Specialities include cassoulet (a bean stew with meat); bourgignon (beef stewed in red wine) and a vast array of intricate sweets, cakes, pastries (patisserie) and breads.
Wine is understandably the most popular beverage in France and the country is the source of most grape varieties used to produce wine worldwide. France is home to 17 distinct wine regions, the most well-known being Bordeaux, Champagne and Beaujolais.
The only official language of France is French. The use of French is required by law in all commercial and workplace communications and the French are passionate about the promotion of their language on the world stage.
Accents and dialects
Accents in France vary widely, particularly between the northern areas of Normandy and Brittany and the southern areas which includes around 1,500,000 speakers of the Occitan dialects.
Numerous minority languages such as Breton, Basque, Alsatian, Flemish and Catalan are still spoken in France, although they are not classed as official languages. Despite the variety of accents and dialects, nearly all French people speak standard French as their first language.
France’s large size means that its climate varies considerably. In northern France, you will find a climate similar to the UK (although a little warmer) with higher rainfall and temperatures reaching highs of 25°C in summer and lows of 1°C in winter. In the south east you will find a balmy Mediterranean climate with temperatures reaching up 35°C in summer. Paris sees all types of weather – rain, wind, and soaring temperatures in summer, when most of its inhabitants empty out of the city and head to the coast.
Safety and security
Crime rates in France have increased in recent years, with a noted increase in muggings and drug-related crime. Recent acts of terrorism have also put the country on almost continuous high alert and security checks when entering and leaving France have been tightened.
The highest incidences of crime are in Paris and Marseille, where it’s advisable to be vigilant about personal belongings and to stay with a group after dark. Outside of urban areas, the threat of crime is considerably lower.
France is considered to have a high standard of public education, which focusses on a traditional school experience of academic study and strict discipline. School is for learning, not play, in France and pupils are rigorously tested from an early age. All children receive a free education and school is compulsory between the ages of six and 16. Children attend primary school (ages 6 to 11), junior/middle school (ages 11 to 15) and are then separated by aptitude into specialist secondary schools (ages 15 to 18). On completion of a school career, most students sit the Baccalauréat (le bac) examination, which is necessary to gain admission to higher education.
The academic year runs from the beginning of September to the end of June and is divided into two semesters (in universities).
French schools have long holidays, with two months in the summer, two to three weeks at both Christmas and Easter and week-long half term breaks. The school day starts at around 8.30am and finishes at 4.30pm with a long lunch break, when many children return home to eat with their families.
France has a complex system of higher education, divided into 83 public universities and around 250 mixed public or private Grandes Écoles. These are smaller, elite institutions (similar to Ivy League schools in the States), which sit outside the main university framework. The highest-ranking universities are the École Normale Supérieure and École Polytechnique ParisTech (both Grandes Écoles). Students gain admission to public universities on successful completion of the Baccalauréat exam at age 18. Admission to Grandes Écoles is by a highly selective entrance exam following two years of private preparatory study, from ages 18 to 21.
Like most other things in France, higher education is highly centralised and overall management is the responsibility of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, which wields considerable influence over budgets and policy.
French public universities are state-funded and students (both EU and non-EU) pay a small annual tuition fee of around €181 (£163). The low fees make France a very popular destination for international students, who account for around 13% of the student body. Students will pay more at the elite schools (Grandes Écoles), some of which are permitted to set their own fees.
Overall, French higher education offers around 36,000 courses with some partially taught in English, although French remains the dominant language in both teaching and research. It would be virtually impossible to study at a French university if your French is less than proficient. In universities, courses comprise three-year undergraduate degrees followed by two-year ‘research’ or ‘professional’ Masters programs. PhDs take around three to four years to complete and many are paid positions.
The system differs in Grandes Écoles, where students undertake two years of preparatory study known as ‘classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles’ (CPGE) prior to commencing their studies. The overall degree programme, including preparatory study, is the equivalent of a combined undergraduate and postgraduate degree.
A combination of top-level funding, an international approach and the establishment of elite subject-specific institutions has led to France being one of the most respected and competitive research nations in the world. Research is carried out in universities, Grandes Écoles and public institutes such as the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the largest science agency in Europe, and other public research institutes such as INRAE and INSERM. State funding for research is allocated by the French National Research Agency.
Primary and secondary education
All schools in France are governed by the Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale and most teachers are classed as civil servants (fonctionnaires). State-funded schools adhere to a strict national curriculum and high educational standards. French schools are divided into:
- Primary school (École primaire): From ages 6-11.
- Junior/Middle school (collège): From ages 11-15. At junior school, children follow a general curriculum and are frequently tested (sometimes each week) to determine their path to the different secondary schools.
- Secondary school (lycée): From ages 15-18. Lycée are divided by specialism into general, technical (sciences, engineering, health) or professional (for students destined for manual/clerical or vocational employment). At the end of lycée, students take the Baccalauréat exam tailored to their lycée specialism.
France has excellent preschool care provision which enables both parents to work without having the extra burden of finding private childcare. State preschools (école maternelles) are available to children from age two or three (depending on municipality) to age six and are free of charge. Registration at public preschools can be completed by contacting the local town hall (mairie). Should you not wish to enrol your child in free state preschool, there are numerous private nurseries and kindergartens to choose from.
France has a high cost of living, particularly in Paris, Marseille and Lyon. Rents and food are cheaper in rural areas, but are still high compared to other western European nations such as the UK and Spain. The average academic monthly salary is around €2,100 to €4,400 (£1,890 to £3,963) in France, which many feel is not enough to match the high living costs. However, the draw of living in France is enough for most expats and it is possible to live well – and frugally – outside the major cities while enjoying the country’s excellent public services and high standard of living.
Only around half of French people own their own homes – everyone else rents their property. Therefore, finding a suitable rental property can be a challenge, particularly in Paris, where accommodation is in short supply. Rents in major cities can be very high – a furnished one-bedroom, 40m² apartment can range up to €3,000 (£2,701) per month in central Paris.
If you are willing to live in the outer suburbs, then finding decent accommodation for a reasonable price is easier. Most people own their own homes in rural areas and although rental properties are thinner on the ground, renting in the French countryside can be very cheap. France attracts thousands of new expats each year so there is a huge range of property websites geared towards foreigners, such as French Entree. Otherwise it’s a good idea to enlist the help of an estate agent (agent immobilier), particularly if your French is lacking.
A rental deposit (dépôt de garantie) of one month’s rent is usually demanded by French landlords/landladies. The deposit is used to cover any damages when the tenant leaves.
There are two types of property tax in France:
- Taxe d’habitation/Residence Tax: This applies to all property owners (with some exemptions) and the amount payable is determined by the local council (commune) per the notional value of the property. The tax is payable by the tenant if the property is rented out. It is levied to cover community services run by the local authority.
- Taxe Fonciere: A buildings and land tax paid by the owner of the property, irrespective of who occupies it.
The two main suppliers of gas and electricity are the partially privatised Gaz de France (GDF) and Electricité de France (EDF), both of which offer a range of tariffs. Utility bills are comparable with other western European countries. However, internet and phone costs can be high in France as most of the telecommunications network is operated by the mobile and digital giant Orange (formerly France Télécom). Water is supplied by private companies and prices are calculated by meter. Tap water is safe to drink in France, although most people prefer the taste of bottled water. For all utilities, it is common to receive a bill every two months.
The basic cost of utilities (gas, water, electricity, refuse) for an 85m² city centre apartment is around €135 (£120) per month. Broadband, phone and TV packages start at around €30 (£26) per month.
Even if you don’t own a television, all households in France are required to pay an annual licence fee (contribution à l’audiovisuel public) which funds the five public channels: France 2, France 3, France 4, France 5, and Arte. The fee is currently set at €121 (£109) and is collected each December alongside the taxe d’habitation demand (see property tax, above).
Healthcare and medical costs
France’s healthcare system has been ranked the best and most accessible in the world by the World Health Organisation (WHO). All healthcare services are funded by a national insurance scheme and contributions are automatically deducted from your pay packet on becoming a resident employee (after 180 days). How much you contribute is calculated according to your income.
Most French health services are state-run but patients pay the doctor upfront and are then reimbursed in part or in full. All residents are issued with a smartcard called a Carte Vitale to pay for services and then the cost is paid back into the patient’s bank account within five working days. The poorest people and the long-term sick are reimbursed in full. For more information, visit the l’assurance maladie website (in French).
France has an infinite range of shopping options. From the upmarket Parisian boutiques of the Avenue des Champs Elysées to the thousands of outdoor markets selling fresh produce and crafts: for shopping addicts, France has it all.
Food shopping in France is a cultural experience in itself and you could find yourself whiling away many hours in the local patisserie or cheese shop. For everyday grocery shopping, there are numerous supermarkets and hypermarché to choose from, the biggest chains being Carrefour, Leclerc, Casino and Auchan. There is also a wide choice of budget chains such as Leader Price, Ed, Aldi, Lidl and Netto which can help cut costs in expensive areas.
Supermarkets are generally open from 8.30am until 8pm, Monday to Saturday and are closed on Sundays. Smaller shops such as bakeries and butchers tend to close during lunchtime each day.
A sales tax (taxe sur la valeur ajoutée – TVA) of 20% is applied to most goods and services in France. A reduced rate of 10% applies to restaurants, transport, renovation/improvement works and certain medicines. A further reduction of 5.5% is applied to food, water and non alcoholic beverages, books, special equipment for the disabled and school canteens
- Rent 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – €686 (£619)
- Rent 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – €530 (£479)
- Price of apartment per square metre in city centre – €5,018 (£4,533)
- Price of apartment per square metre outside city centre – €3,125 (£2,822)
- Loaf of bread – €1.30 (£1.17)
- Milk (1 litre) – €0.94 (£0.85)
- Bottled water (1.5 litre) – €0.68 (£0.61)
- Draught beer (0.5 litre) – €1.58 (£1.43)
- Packet of cigarettes – €7.00 (£6.32)
- Petrol (1 litre) – €1.26 (£1.13)
- Cinema ticket – €10.00 (£9.03)
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed October 2016)
Budgeting and saving
Although France has a high cost of living, it is possible to cut costs by shopping locally or in budget supermarkets. Additionally, using public transport is considerably cheaper and more efficient than running a car in France, where motorway tolls, car insurance and fuel can be very expensive. To plan your budget, you can also use a comparison site such as Tous les Prix (in French).
Taking a road trip is one of the best ways to see France’s beautiful countryside. However, care should be taken in Paris and other large cities, where driving can be a hair-raising experience for newcomers. Multi-lane traffic, complex one way systems and the notoriously aggressive French driving style can frustrate even the most experienced city drivers.
France has very good road network made up of Autoroutes (motorways), which are mainly toll roads, toll-free Route Nationale (dual carriageways) and minor and urban roads. Autoroutes can be costly if you are driving long distances but are fast and generally congestion-free. Speed limits are 130km/h (80mph) on Autoroutes, 110km/h (70mph) on dual carriageways and 50km/h (30mph) in residential areas. Be aware that radar speed traps are very common in France and the on-the-spot fines can be steep.
If you have a driver’s licence issued by an EU/EEA country, you can drive in France indefinitely. All other non-EU licence holders must exchange their licence for a French one after one year. Applications to exchange your driver’s licence can be made at your local town hall (mairie).
Taxis in France can only collect passengers from designated tax ranks (station de taxi), apart from in some areas of large cities where hailing a cab on the street is permitted. Taxis can be recognised by their roof signs and fares are calculated by distance travelled. Private minicabs do not exist in France and all taxis drivers charge the tariffs determined by their municipality.
Buses and coaches
France has a comprehensive urban bus network which offers a cheap way to get around. Most areas have their own regional bus service, with some services running all night in large cities. Single tickets can be bought on board – multi-trip passes are usually for locals and require a photocard. In Paris, it is possible to buy travel cards which are valid for all public transport (metro, train and bus).
Long distance coach travel is relatively new to France, most people use the high speed TGV trains to travel between towns and cities. However, rail company SNCF operate the Ouibus coach service which covers 1,000 routes across France and into the rest of Europe.
France has one of the world’s best rail networks with the jewel in the crown being the high speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) routes radiating out of Paris and whisking passengers around the country in a matter of hours. The French rail infrastructure is operated by state-owned SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français). Local services are fast and efficient and the Paris Métro is one of the most comprehensive metro systems worldwide. The cities of Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Rennes and Toulouse also have metro networks. Rail travel is generally cheap and discounted tickets can be purchased online at SNCF.
France’s rail network also extends to other European countries and the UK and Belgium can be reached by Eurostar in a few hours from Paris, Lille and Calais.
Trams and light rail
There are several tramways and light rail systems in France and the country has committed significant investment to developing eco-friendly modes of transport in the future. You will find ultramodern light-rail lines in Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Nancy, Nantes, Nice, Reims, Rouen and Strasbourg, as well as parts of greater Paris. You can buy single tickets on board or purchase a carnet (book of tickets) for multi-trip journeys.
France has 185 airports operating domestic and international flights. The national carrier is Air France which flies to 189 destinations in 82 countries. For travellers who need to get somewhere fast and don’t want to take the TGV, France has a comprehensive network of domestic flights between major cities. Most domestic flights are operated by Air France and take around one hour.
Other ways to get around
French people are keen cyclists and being home to the world’s most famous cycle race means the country is well set up for bikes. There are around 21,000 km of national cycle routes in France, for more information about routes and cycle hire visit France Velo Tourisme.
France has a 35-hour working week, which is enshrined in law. Employers wanting more hours from their employees must pay between 10% and 50% extra per hour. The French working week is shorter than many other European nations and reflects a hardwired cultural commitment to a decent work/life balance.
Maternity pay in France is considered generous compared to other European countries. All women are entitled to six week’s maternity leave before and 10 weeks after the births of their first two children. New fathers are entitled to 11 days leave, which must be taken in one chunk within the first four months of the birth.
All employees are entitled to an average of five weeks of paid holiday each year. This is calculated as two-and-a-half days per month, worked between 1st June and 31st May. There are certain rules on how holiday is used, for example the maximum days taken at once must not be more than 24. Most holidays are taken in August so it can be very difficult to get in contact with your French counterparts during this month.
There are 10 public holidays in France, as well as at least two unofficial holidays, including the March equinox and St Stephen’s Day on 26th December. Most employers recognise and give workers time off to celebrate holidays, even if they are only observed locally.
Public holidays 2019
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Easter Monday: 22nd April
Labour Day: 1st May
Ascension Day: 30th May
Whit Monday: 10th June
Bastille Day: 14th July
Assumption of Mary: 15th August
All Saints’ Day: 1st November
Armistice Day: 11th November
Christmas Day: 25th December
Visas and eligibility
All citizens from EU and EEA countries can travel freely to France using a national ID card or passport. France is part of the Schengen Agreement which allows citizens to remain in the country for 90 days without a visa.
For longer-term stays in the country, EU/EEA citizens may need to register for residency at the local mairie (town hall). This is not mandatory but acquiring a French residency permit can help you access public services.
Non-EU/EEA citizens will require a visa to enter France which must be applied for in your home nation. You will also need to apply for a residence permit (carte de sejour) from the préfecture de Police within three months of arrival. The application process can take several months to complete. For more information visit the Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration.
Taxation in France is among the highest in Europe. The three types of tax, which all residents and expats living and working (for more than 183 days a year) in France must pay are: income tax (impôt sur le revenu); social security contributions (charges sociales); and tax on goods and services (taxe sur la valeur ajoutée TVA).
Expats usually pay an average of 20% of their income in tax on top of a residence tax (taxe d’habitation). Unlike other countries, which deduct income tax automatically from wages, in France workers must complete an annual tax return (déclaration de revenus). Tax is calculated for the calendar year and returns must be completed by 31st May for the previous year. If you are late you can be hit with a penalty equivalent to 10% of your tax bill.
France has one of the best-funded social security systems in the world which covers healthcare, sickness, unemployment, state pension, family and maternity and paternity benefits. While the social security system is notoriously complex and subject to changes, generally EU/EEA citizens are covered in France by their home county’s own systems. For those from outside the EU, a residency permit is required to be eligible for state benefits. All residents in France are eligible to use the health care system. Your employer should register you with the URSSAF (Union de Recouvrement des Cotisations de Sécurité Sociale et d’Allocations Familiales) to ensure you are eligible for benefits.
Contributory pensions are generally allocated to people with at least 37.5 years of work behind them. The amount is calculated depending on a person’s age and salary levels and their social security contributions over their lifetime. Non-contributory pensions are means-tested and are granted to people aged between 50 and 65. To qualify, you must be a resident in France and on a relatively low income. These pensions were introduced in 1956 and were intended for those who have not been in paid work either because of ill health or because of caring duties.
The rights of disabled workers in France are protected by the 2005 Disability Act. Employers are given cash bonuses for hiring disabled employees for over 12 consecutive months. The law also requires employers to provide access and adjust working hours and shifts to accommodate disabled workers. Disabled workers are also allowed to retire early (from age 55) if they have more than 30 working years behind them. In France, it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of someone’s disability and a worker cannot be made redundant because of their disability. The HALDE (High Authority against Discrimination) handles all discrimination complaints.
France has the fifth largest economy in the world, with Paris being the Eurozone’s leading financial centre. The French economy is built on world class industrial sectors and France is home to major corporations such as Airbus Group, Danone, Total, EDF, Orange, Renault and Peugeot.
French businesses are strictly hierarchical. Positions are clearly defined – showing respect for superiors and adhering to strict etiquette rules are entrenched in French professional life.
Most senior managers take an authoritarian role in France. Decisions are taken at the top of the company and passed down for implementation. Teamwork is valued but French workers have assigned responsibilities and look to managers for guidance. Motivating staff through incentives and team-building is not as apparent in French companies as in the UK and across Scandinavia.
French people are rather formal so being aware of the correct etiquette from the outset is vital in making the right impression. You should always address your superiors and those you meet for the first time using ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame/Mademoiselle,’ until you are invited to do otherwise (which may be never). If your French is good enough, always remember to use the polite ‘vous’ form when meeting new colleagues and superiors.
The French have a strong sense of privacy and business and personal lives rarely overlap. It’s therefore important not to encroach too much on your colleagues’ personal time. That said, although the French can be reserved, don’t be surprised if you are asked some probing questions about your intellectual credentials at initial meetings. French people place great importance on qualifications, so being able to show your experience in a good light will help you to earn your colleagues’ trust.
Appearance is everything in France and casual dress would be highly unusual in a business setting. Elegance is key to French outfits – men wear conservative and expensively cut suits with white or striped shirts and ties. Women opt for smart skirt or trouser suits and heels. Suit jackets generally stay on in the office and in restaurants, for both men and women.
French greetings can be complex. A handshake is the accepted greeting between colleagues who have just met. However, if you happen to see the same colleagues in a restaurant later, exchanging ‘la bise’ (the kiss) would be acceptable. La bise is an air kiss on both cheeks and should not be undertaken with an accompanying hug. Hugging is reserved for couples or parents and their children. Lastly, even if your French is terrible, always say ‘bonjour’ not ‘hello’ on first meeting.
Although famous for being ‘fashionably late,’ the French take punctuality very seriously. However, being ten minutes late is not considered late in France, but being an hour late would be considered extremely rude. Making an appointment is crucial if you wish to do business in France. Dropping in on someone unannounced, no matter how well you know them, would make your French counterpart feel uneasy and ill prepared.
Meetings follow a clearly set out structure and agenda in France. Always ensure you arrange a meeting a few weeks prior to the proposed date – French people are meticulous forward planners and ad hoc meetings are unheard of. French business people appreciate spirited debate and attention to detail so meetings can be lengthy. In most circumstances, meetings will be carried out in French so being proficient in the language will help when doing business.
French people have a strong sense of pride about their country and insulting France or all things French, even in humour, would not be taken kindly. You should also avoid talking politics with people you don’t know, although French people love a lengthy political discussion, it would be rude to ask a stranger about their political leanings. Language can also be a sticking point – always try to start a conversation in French rather than English.
French is the main language used in business settings. Although many French people speak a good level of English, you should never assume that meetings will be conducted in the language. If you don’t speak French, it would be difficult to do business in France so it’s advisable to brush up on your language skills before re-locating there.