Working in France

A guide to what you can expect if you want to work in France

Working in France

Many people assume that the Brits (or other non French nationalities) who move to France are all retired or independently wealthy. They also assume, therefore, that ex-pats will not be working, and have no interest in the labour market in France (Jobs in France), or in working conditions. This is, actually, not the case. There are many who move to France, for a variety of reasons and at a variety of life stages, and, as most of us who are not yet of retirement age do not have the good fortune to be independently wealthy either, the issue of work or employment in France does tend to raise its head.

Self-employment in France - the easier option for some

Certainly, there are fewer ex-pats who enter into employment in France than there are those who take the self-employed route, as this is decidedly easier in many respects. But there are Brits and other foreign nationals employed, or seeking work, in France, and it is interesting to look at the realities of working in this country, its similarities to and differences from the British system.

Finding work in France - is it easy?

Sadly, the answer to this question is no. France is a country with high unemployment levels, especially in the rural areas to which the ex-pats flock. It isn't, however, impossible, if you have the right qualifications and a creative approach to selling your unique talents. Bear in mind that if you are up against a French man or woman with equal skills and experience to yours then the French person will almost certainly get the job. A sort of nationalistic nepotism? Possibly, but only if all things are equal. If you have the best qualifications you will be the successful one.

Working in France - qualifications count

In France, unlike Britain, the most important thing you have to offer a new employer at an interview or application stage is your academic qualifications. The French love paperwork, and without doubt, the way to a French employer's heart is through mountains of the stuff. The more years you have spent in formal education the better (many young French are in full time education until the age of about 26 or even later) and if you can trot out a "Bac plus 5" (roughly speaking, a Baccalaureate plus five years of additional education), including a degree (licence), post graduate degrees (aprés licence) and professional examinations or more at an interview then you will have employers licking your feet and finding work shouldn't be a problem. Probably. As long, that is, as your qualifications are in maths and sciences, regardless of any relevance to what your role or work in the company will be. The best Baccalaureate, in terms of desirability as an employee, is without any question the Bac S (scientifique). Even if you want to be a librarian. (French Education System - Schools in France, Starting School in France.)

Huge difference in paper qualifications for those working in France

Seriously, though, there is huge difference between France and England in the matter of paper qualifications and finding work. In the UK you can turn up at an interview with little but your personality to recommend you and still stand a good chance of impressing the interviewers, but in France it is vital to have the paper work and to be armed with your own weight in certificates. Interestingly, on a French CV there is no space to write about your hobbies and interests, as no importance is given to this aspect of your personality.

Working in France - must you speak French?

Once again, the answer you would probably like to hear isn't the one you are about to get. Sorry, but yes, to stand any real chance of working in France (except in self-employment or specific jobs within the ex-pat community or relating to "Englishness" such as teaching English), you need to speak very good French. Depending on the work, you may get by without being grammatically perfect, but you do need a working knowledge of the language as most of the workforce will probably speak little English. Of course, once you have the requisite level of French, speaking English too can be a distinct advantage, as it is still the international language of business and commerce and French companies recognise and value this. (Learning French.)

Contracts for working in France

If you are employed on a permanent basis, you will have a contract called a Contrat À Durée Indéterminée. This means that your job and working conditions are fully subject to French employment law (more of that later!) and you should more or less be set for life! If you have been employed on a temporary basis through an individual employer you will sign a Contrat À Durée Determinée, which specifies the term of employment (up to two years) and may be renewed once only. The other possible, and increasingly more likely type of contract, is one obtained through an employment agency such as Manpower. These are becoming increasingly popular with employers as they go some way towards absolving them from the suffocatingly tight restrictions imposed by French employment law.

Work in France and French employment law

The subject is far too complex to enter into in any but the briefest fashion here, but suffice it to say that as usual, the French have complicated things as much as possible. In case anyone thinks I am being anti French here, this statement actually comes from the mouth of a very good French friend, who is a big employer locally. French employment law goes a long way to achieving its ideal of protecting the workers, but in so doing it has effectively stifled economic growth and blocked employment prospects for many of its citizens. Because jobs are so protected once bestowed, with the firing of an incompetent or inactive employee almost impossible, employers are reluctant to take on workers on permanent contracts.

The length of a working week in France

Other problems that occurred in the past included the 35-hour working week rule that prevented increased productivity with its restriction on working hours. This was, of course, frequently circumvented at management level, where it was much harder to check the number of hours worked, but it did mean that the factory floor workers were unable to significantly supplement their incomes by overtime as was and is commonly done in the UK. Since July 2008, under Sarkozy's conservative government, new laws have been passed that allow up to 48 hours to be worked, and to be paid as overtime at plus 10%.

Working until 55 years old - retirement and the train drivers

You may have heard reports of strikes and unrest in France recently within the ranks of the train drivers. Briefly, they are protesting against Sarkozy's plans to scrap the "retirement on full pay at 55" package to which they had previously been entitled (apparently due to the "stressful nature" of the job). Miners have also historically been subject to this benefit, with, some may argue, greater justification due to their more hazardous line of work! Sarkozy is said to be determined to stand firm in raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, although it seems he is prepared to make some allowances for those whose jobs have been particularly hazardous or those whose working lives began at an early age. However, the changes are still causing great dissatisfaction. At the moment, retirement in France is dependant on the length of time you have been working, with forty years service the requirement for a full pension. (Retirement in Perpignan, Retirement in France.)

Working in France - sickness rules

If you are sick, you need to obtain a sick note from your doctor which is delivered to your employer. Usually, the first three days of sickness are taken at your own expense (though they may be covered by private medical insurance) and after that, should the illness continue, the employer's policy takes over. Arrangements can vary from company to company, so be sure you know how your work place operates. (Health care in France.)

Working in France - holidays allowed

Holidays are a bit of a mystery to the non French, who hear stories of not being able to work in August, and the bizarre (but actually rather civilised) practice of "fait le pont" or "making the bridge". Actually, it isn't that complicated. Roughly speaking, holidays are taken as two consecutive weeks at any time, plus three weeks between July 1st and 30th September. Add to this the odd extra days afforded by public holidays and making the bridge... which, by the way, refers to the addition of an extra day 's holiday linking a public holiday to the weekend if it happens to fall (as many conveniently do) upon a Tuesday or a Thursday. (French Public Holidays / Bank Holidays in France.)

Working in France and relationships between workers and bosses

No, for once, them and us does not refer to the divide between the French and the Brits, but to the grand canyon that frequently separates the bosses from the workers while you are at work in France. Obviously there are good bosses and bad bosses, as anywhere in the world, but in general, in France, there is a very clear distinction between the employers and the employed. Respect is expected, and generally given, with formality of address (the use of the "vous" form, rather than the familiar "tu", the use of the polite "Monsieur" or "Madam", the requirement for a formal greeting on arrival and departure). The use of surnames is also normal at work in France, particularly between bosses and employees. I am reliably informed that it is quite possible to work alongside someone for many years in France and never get to know their first name!

Self employment in France - become an auto entrepreneur

Since Nicholas Sarkozy came to power, there have also been significant changes to self employment rules and the way that taxes and social charges are levied on the self employed. There is now a new category of self employed worker, known as the auto entrepreneur. This allows a person to register as an enterprise, as a sole worker, within a new, simpler regime. The old system allowed for a person, for example, a builder working alone, to register as a "micro enterprise", but he would still have to attend a government run course, and be liable for quite high social charges and taxes, regardless of whether or not he was earning anything. The auto entrepreneur, on the other hand, pays tax and social charges only at a flat percentage rate of his earnings, does not have to attend the startup course and can even register himself online. However, certain restrictions apply which mean that the scheme is not suitable for all. There is a ceiling beyond which you cannot earn, for example. This is set at 32,000 Euros for those who provide service only, ie, builders, and 80,000 Euros for those who sell goods, eg, hoteliers, café owners or shops. The first group are taxed at 23%, while the second pay 13%. It is important to note, though, that the taxes and social charges are levied on turnover not profit.

While the scheme is useful and has encouraged many to legalise their activities rather than working "on the black" with all the attendant problems, it has its limitations. Many are finding the ceiling on earnings unrealistic, and are facing having to change to a different system if their business takes off and nears the earnings limit. Also, when charging clients for materials they can't benefit from the two-tiered TVA (VAT) scheme as can those who are registered for TVA and work within a "réel" system of taxation. This can result in a problem as an auto entrepreneur must pay and hence, include, the higher rate of 19.6% in his or her devis, while a more appealing quote could be made by a traditionally registered artisan who can charge the lower rate of 5.5% in many cases.

It seems that the scheme has its place, and is extremely useful for those who run perhaps a small B&B business or a weekend business for example, but doesn't perhaps provide the real alternative that it appeared to be for those wishing to establish a long term, full-time business.

Working in France is different - vive la difference!

The bottom line is that if you want to work in France you need to accept and even celebrate the differences between their way of doing things and the way you have chosen to leave behind. Changes are coming, courtesy of Sarkozy's new regime, but the trick for us ex-pats, for now at least, is to keep our heads down and do things the way the French want them done. If nothing else, you could find yourself enjoying the celebrated two-hour lunch break, with wine. Vive la difference! It's why we are here in the first place.

Additional articles which may be of interest:

Sarkozy and French property owners
Tax in France
Life in France
Brits in France

About the author

Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.

your questions...

1. A question about temporary work in France (added 17/7/08)...

Hi - we own a barn in France and live in England. We would like to employ a friend of ours, who has a limited company in England and who lives in England, to go and do some work for us in France on the barn. A bit like a working holiday for him. Is there a law against this, or is it just a case of obtaining insurance over there?

Joanna Simm, author of the above article, replies...

I understand that it is only an issue for those who are tax liable in France. I think if the tax and social implications are in England and not France it would be ok. But I also understand that this will only apply if your friend is only working in France for less than six months. Then he simply declares it on his English tax forms. It would be advisable to have some paperwork to show this though in case of problems.

And re: insurance... you should have public liability anyway with your property insurance for your barn, so this will cover that. Any personal insurance your friend can add as extra however he likes.

2. A question about visas (added 22/7/11)...

My wife and I are looking for property in France - small Bed and Breakfast potential two-three ensuite rooms and/or one or two gites, preferably in south or south-west of France, up to £350,000. We are currently preparing one of our three properties in the UK for sale. We have one problem to solve - my wife is a Chinese National with indefinite leave to live in the UK. Currently we visit Europe by getting Shengen visas. These are a hassle and expensive. If we have a business in France can my wife get a long term visa so we can travel freely between the UK and France?

Needless to say, the French Embassy website is of no help! Although married to me - she still retains her Chinese passport in her maiden name. If you are able to offer some advice - or contact details for an expert in these matters, we would be most grateful.

Jo Rhodes, editor of French Property Links replies...

Thanks for contacting us. I would have pointed you in the direction of the French Embassy, but if you have had no luck there, you may wish to try asking a legal advisor, perhaps using the following page of our site:

Or what about the Chinese Embassy? Maybe someone could advise from there?

I am sorry to not be able to help further.

3. A question about holiday days (added 8/12/11)...

Not sure if you can help. I work on a full-time contract for a French registered farm. I work Mon-Fri. I know I have five weeks holiday a year, but they are saying one week's holiday is Mon-Sat, but I only get paid for five of the days, not the Saturday. Calculating this it means I only get 25 paid holiday days a year. Is this correct? Hope you can help.

Jo Rhodes, editor of French Property Links replies...

Thanks for contacting us. I have been in contact with my colleague Joanna in France who says:

"According to Richard Whiting, author of books about France and working here, all employees are entitled to five weeks paid holiday. The usual holiday year runs from 1st June to 31st May, with full entitlement only beginning after a full year has been worked. The entitlement is 30 days. All public holidays should be paid."

So I would definitely query this with your employer, if you have been working for them for a full year, as this does not sound legal. If you haven't worked for them for a full year, they may be within their rights to allow you only this amount of holiday.

For further advice, you may wish to contact a legal advisor, perhaps using the following page of our site:

Fees are not always charged if the enquiries don't take up too much time.

I wish you all the best with resolving this issue.

4. A question about a carte de sejour (added 31/7/12)...

Do you know if I need to have a carte titre de sejour to work in France or is my passport good enough? The reason for this is I have been asked for this at work now.

Joanna Simm, author of the above article replies...

A carte de sejour is no longer a requirement in France. If you moved there after a certain date you won't have one. And it depends what work you are doing, as to the paperwork required. A passport is normally needed, yes, but you might have to provide other things as well, though I am sure a carte de sejour is no longer an issue. I would tell them you no longer need one. This has been the case since before 2004 I think, though I am not sure of the exact date.

your comments...

1. A comment about contractual work (added 31/7/12)...

I noticed that in one of your paragraphs that you had noted that if you are on a contract CDD it can only be renewed up to three times max. But I work in a south of France hospital and have done continually for five years now and I have far more than three renewals. All differ in the lengths of time. I have asked if it is normal and the reply was that because it is a hospital they have the right to give you as much as you wish to carry on with.

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