Relocating to Paris: Vive la Difference

Best known in American circles as a city of romance, Paris is also home to a growing number of US expatriates. Following is some helpful information for expats who are new to the city.

Getting to know the people

Unlike Americans, the French rarely make verbal or physical contact with each other when walking down the street — nor do they wave, whistle or yell on the bus, in trains, or the supermarket. In fact, in some areas, the French do not speak to strangers at all, since it is considered impolite. Expats shouldn’t expect — or force — spontaneous conversation.

They should also keep in mind that a French person is often fiercely proud of his region, its history, and its contribution to France, Europe and the rest of the world. Expats who take the time to learn a little about their destination region’s dress, accent, food and drink, industry and landscapes, will develop greater perspective and appreciation of their French co-workers and neighbors.

Getting down to business

Typically, the French workday begins at 9:00 a.m. and ends at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m., although this may vary depending on the expat’s location. Lunch is usually at 12:30 or 1:00, and most employees will take a full hour to dine with their colleagues.

Important lunch meetings, however, can run up to three hours or longer. The French have a deep appreciation for their cuisine, which is considered among the world’s finest. Eating is designed to nourish the body as well as the soul, and the business lunch is no exception. (Long lunches also afford the opportunity to get to know one another and build a relationship before getting down to business.)

French managers may work later than their subordinates, and occasionally on the weekends. Unlike their American counterparts, however, they don’t make a habit of it. The French draw clear lines between their work and private lives; business calls at home are especially unwelcome.

Holidays and vacations are considered sacred, and it’s common for employees to take two or three weeks at a time. French law guarantees all salaried workers five weeks paid vacation each year.

Dressed for success

French businessmen prefer to wear a suit, or slacks and a blazer, shirt, and tie. They are not as conventional as their American counterparts, and enjoy expressing their individuality through their work clothing. Although casual dress is catching on in the workplace, especially in younger companies, a more formal style is still the norm.

Corporate structures in France vary widely depending on the company and industry, but the typical company still tends to be fairly hierarchical and centralized. As a result, decisions are usually made on a top-down basis.


In keeping with this trend, subordinates usually address their superiors by title and formal address. Co-workers greet each other with a handshake each morning and again at the end of the day. Contrary to popular American opinion, however, the practice of kissing females on the cheek is reserved for close friends outside the workplace.

Workstyles and teamwork

The French management style tends to be authoritarian and paternal, and French workers do not expect to develop close personal relationships with their superiors. Managers are expected to be experts and have the answers to subordinates’ questions. They are also expected to give clear directions, while maintaining a hands-off approach concerning how subordinates complete the task at hand.

The concept of teams is still somewhat foreign in the French workplace. Like their American counterparts, French business people have been encouraged to pursue individual academic achievement and competition, and this mindset carries over into the workplace.

Business meetings in France usually have an agenda, but allow for a broad — and spontaneous — discussion of the issues without regard for a specific time frame. In general, the French prefer less structure than Americans or Germans, and may spend a fair amount of time analyzing the facts rather than setting objectives and action steps.

Women in the workplace

A large number of French women work outside the home — and many hold high positions in French corporations and government. Although the trend toward women entering upper-level positions continues to grow, however, there are few female CEOs. Since the family plays an important role in French society, many women may choose to pursue a family before a career.


Housing choices

Many of the apartment buildings in Paris were built during the period from 1850 to 1920 and as such, share the same distinctive style. Typically, ground floors were designed to house shops, and first floor apartments were reserved for the shopkeepers. With their low ceiling and semi-circular windows, first-floor apartments can be quite dark. Second and third floor apartments feature higher ceilings and larger rooms, and are usually the most expensive, while apartments on the fourth floor and up tend to be less expensive.

Overall, rental laws in France are designed to protect the tenant, and allow for a written contract, and rental deposits that don’t exceed two months’ rent. Leases for unfurnished apartments range from a minimum of three years if the apartment is owned by an individual, and up to six years if it is owned by a company. Rental increases occur once a year and are tied to the official Cost and Construction Index.

“Rent” comprises building charges, registration tax and rental fee. In addition, expats will be required to pay a yearly government tax, which varies depending on the area.

Although furnished apartments can be found in central Paris — and come complete with all the necessities — they are harder to come by in other areas. Unfurnished apartments are more commonly available in other parts of the city and in suburban areas. However, these are often rented without such items as light fixtures and curtain rods, which the tenant is expected to install himself.

As is true with many apartments in the US, tenants are required to sign a statement verifying the contents and condition of the apartment at the time of their move-in. Since tenants are responsible for all damages, it is important that expats carefully prepare and review the statement to ensure all present damages are listed.

Schools for children

Expats with children have a variety of schooling choices, including bilingual education, American curriculum, international schools and the French system. France maintains a number of excellent state schools which require no fee, but do require a good knowledge of the French language.

Parents of children with special needs can get assistance from SPRINT (Sharing Professional Resources, Ideas and New Techniques), and SPAN (Sprint Parents Action Network), two organizations that have a great deal of experience dealing with special needs and bilingual students.

Help around the house

Expats can find domestic help through word of mouth, or by checking the notice boards of a number of international organizations such as the American Church (1) 47 05 07 99, St. Michael’s English Church (1) 47 42 70 88, The British Institute of Paris (1) 45 55 71 99, and the France/USA Contacts (1) 45 38 56 57.

Babysitters are also widely available and can be located by contacting a babysitting agency, or calling the American College or graduate programs.

Spouse assistance and support

Expats whose spouses desire to work in France can get assistance from The Business Development Network International, a networking group that provides business opportunities for American and European professionals and companies.

There are also numerous educational opportunities available to expat spouses, including adult courses, lectures and MBA programs, at the various universities and colleges in Paris. These include: The American University of Paris (47 20 44 99), and the University of Hartford Business School (49 00 19 61).

Shopping in Paris

Most stores in Paris are open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., although clothing stores keep slightly different hours — from 10:00 or 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Few stores are open on Sunday, and some are closed on Monday, as well. Grocery stores may close for several hours during lunch. Most also require expats to bag their own groceries in the plastic bags provided; paper bags are virtually nonexistent.

The French “plastic cards” are not credit cards, but rather debit cards expats can use to pay for purchases using money drawn from their checking accounts. Like many credit cards, however, they require a subscription fee.

A Visa or Eurocard gives expats the option of either paying by direct debit from their checking account or deferring payment until the end of the following month.

On the streets of Paris

There are many ways expats can get about town. The Paris Metro system, for example, has 15 lines that span the entire city. The Metro opens at 5:00 a.m. and closes between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m. The RER (Reseau Express Regional) serves as the Metro’s suburban extension and accepts Paris Metro tickets. Travel by taxi in Paris is safe but costly. Taxis making airport or race track stops require an extra charge, and a baggage charge is also common. Most taxis will only transport three people, although larger cars are available if the taxi reservation desk is notified in advance. Typically tips for taxi drivers range from 10 -15% of the fare.

Driving in Paris is on the right and passing on the left. Seatbelts are mandatory for the driver and all passengers when they are available, and children under the age of 10 cannot ride in the front seat. People under the age of 18 are prohibited from driving a car or motorcycle over 125 cc, regardless of whether they hold a valid license from their home country.

France also adheres to strict drinking and driving laws. Drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0. 8 mgs per thousand or over, or whose breath contains 0.4 gms or more per liter will receive a prison sentence ranging from one month to one year and a fine of between 500 to 8,000 Francs. They may also lose their license. Expats would do well to familiarize themselves with local driving laws since they vary from those in the US.

A relatively safe haven

Many expats to France say they feel safer in Paris than in most large cities, but it still pays to exercise caution. Pickpockets may be present in the Metro or in tourist areas. If expats do experience a theft, they should report the incident to the local police, and report any stolen check books or credit cards to their bank.

Since police will require a complete list of any items taken in a home burglary, expats should prepare an inventory of all their belongings when they arrive in France. In addition to notifying the police of a home burglary, they should also notify their insurance company by registered returned mail, usually within 24 hours of the event.