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Business Culture: Business Negotiating


In negotiations, the French value logical thinking, competence, strong conversational and debating skills, clarity, and intelligence. Be courteous, dignified, and respectful throughout the meeting, even if the discussion becomes heated.

Efficiency is not highly prized in France: usually the goods will be delivered, but not according to schedule. It is vital to build a positive relationship with your French partners if you want your negotiations and your eventual deal to proceed in a timely manner.

Although the debate during negotiations is often lively and rich in creative ideas, final decisions tend to be of a conservative nature.

Goal of Negotiations

Contract Relationship
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In France, the business relationship is of paramount importance. Business within France is often conducted between friends, so foreign businesspeople are well advised to focus on relationship-building strategies. This typically involves an initial social meeting and a session of friendly small talk preceding each business meeting. Once fundamental trust is established between you and your French counterpart, a sense of loyalty will develop, which will often serve you better than any signed contract. 

French businesspeople tend to have a relaxed relationship with time, so meetings will often be canceled or delayed. This is likely unless you are considered a good friend, in which case they will be more careful to avoid offending you.

Business relationships are formed between companies and between the individuals engaged directly in the course of negotiations. If you succeed in establishing a strong basis for trust, any changes in members of your negotiating team along the way will be accepted without difficulty.


Win/Lose Win/Win
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The French view negotiations as joint problem-solving endeavors, with both sides expected to cooperate, compromise, and reach a mutually beneficial agreement. This does not necessarily translate in practice to a win-win attitude. If your French counterparts believe that your proposal is not logical enough, they may become aggressive in their arguments. Try not to be drawn into open confrontation; you will be respected more if you remain calm and reserved.

The French typically compromise and agree to concessions only when this seems to be the only option for keeping the deal from floundering. They are willing to share information, and they typically like to discuss details before bargaining begins. They usually do not respond negatively to questions about sensitive details, and will ask many probing questions.

Personal Style

Informal Formal
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French businesspeople give the impression of being aloof and formal until a good relationship is established. Within France, they are used to making deals with friends. The French prefer personal contact, so communication via phone calls, e-mail, and letters are nowhere near as effective as face-to-face meetings.

Engage in direct and frequent eye contact, even when using a translator at meetings. This conveys honesty and builds trust. Shake hands with all present in the negotiation room upon arrival, every time you meet. Handshaking in France is a sign of respect.

The French take note of attire, quality of clothing, and whether a person is well groomed. They usually dress impeccably in elegant and stylish clothing.

Gifts are not usually exchanged at business meetings or negotiations, but it is acceptable to present your French counterpart with something suited to his or her personal tastes, especially if it is something from your home country. It is not expected that you purchase an expensive gift.

Communication Style

Indirect Direct
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The French typically like to engage in a vigorous and educated debate over a proposal. Your business presentation is expected to be well organized, clear, and concise, based on a thorough analysis of the pertinent issues.

Expect to be questioned extensively on issues of culture, philosophy, your education, and business connections within your home country, but not on personal issues such as your family life. You should similarly refrain from questions of this nature.

It is important to be tactful and polite. Criticism of a proposal can be translated as criticism of the person who drafted the proposal. Never cast direct blame. The French are notoriously sensitive, and it is often more important to them to maintain a dignified appearance than to actually get the job done right. If you are disappointed in your colleague’s behavior for some reason, refer to it in an oblique fashion at the most.

The French will typically check out your firm’s background before your initial meeting, and you are advised to come well versed on their organization’s history and philosophy. Flattery, especially if it is specific, is helpful in making a good impression. For example, since French firms are typically proud of having employees with a family tradition of joining their company, it is worthwhile complimenting them on this if their firm has a number of employees who have joined their ranks, generation after generation.

The French often claim that they require approval from a superior; this may be a tactic or the truth.

If you do speak French, expect your counterparts to correct your grammar and pronunciation: this is done in an effort to help you, not in order to embarrass you. Unless you speak French fairly fluently, it is recommended that you engage a translator, as the French tend to be shy about their foreign language abilities and it irks them to hear their own language mispronounced and mangled. If you do not speak French at all, you are expected to apologize and to express regret.

Presentation materials should be clear and attractive. It is recommended that you have English handout materials translated into French, as this is taken as a compliment and shows a high level of preparedness on your part.

Time Sensitivity

Low High
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The French typically have a low sensitivity to time. Meetings and decision-making typically take more time than foreigners tend to expect. Appointments are often cancelled at the last moment, or run far longer than scheduled. Interruptions to negotiations are frequent: expect your French counterparts to take phone calls from family members, and to allow other colleagues to drop in during negotiations, even when they are one-on-one sessions.

If your French counterpart has scheduled the negotiation session for a certain amount of time, then even if issues are resolved quickly, he or she will rely on repetition to fill in the time. To end the meeting ahead of time is tantamount to admitting that whoever called the meeting overestimated the importance of the issues.

The French usually like to feel that you are willing to devote a lot of time to developing a business relationship with them. They hate to be rushed.

Deadlines are typically not taken seriously, and it is recommended that you clearly state whether a deadline is flexible or fixed.


Low High
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During initial meetings before a relationship is established, French businesspeople often appear cold and haughty. Even when they are in the position of selling, you may receive the impression that they are not interested in making a deal. This is due to a few reasons: one, they want to feel in a position of power; two, they want you to appreciate that it is an honor to buy a French product; and three, they want to assess your character and determination to make a deal with them.

The French may become heated in negotiations and argue, turn red, and interrupt you and one another. Intense outbursts are not necessarily signs of anger. Feel free to argue in response, but do not raise your voice or be overly emotional or expressive in your body language. If you do, you will lose their respect.

Often French businesspeople employ the tactic of pretending to be uninterested in the entire deal, and use deceptive techniques such as telling lies, and making false demands and concessions. Emotional techniques such as attitudinal bargaining and appeals to personal relationships are often employed. A careful "good cop, bad cop" strategy may be effective in countering these tactics, as well as defensive strategies such as blocking, changing the subject, and asking probing, detailed questions.

If an argument reaches an impasse, it is advisable to ask for a break or to schedule another meeting for a later date.

The French consider quiet pauses during social conversation or negotiations to be acceptable and comfortable. In public, they are more reserved and conversations are kept at a quiet level.

Risk Taking

Low High
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The French tend to be low risk takers in business. They prefer their business dealings to conform to the norm. Do not be fooled by the creativity and richness of their debates during negotiations: these discussions are valued by them as intellectual exercises, and are not predictors of creative outcomes.

Stress long-term objectives rather than the short-term gains of any proposal. The French are more likely to embrace change if you present logical and thorough arguments. They are impressed if you throw in a little of your own personal philosophy for good measure; but reason, not emotion, will convince them. Always come prepared with contingency plans, guarantees, and warranties wherever possible.

Team Organization

One Leader Consensus
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Negotiations in France are conducted by individuals or by teams of negotiators. French businesses are usually hierarchically organized, and only senior executives make final decisions, after lengthy consideration and discussion with subordinates. Since seniority is highly respected, subordinates may not express alternative views to those of a superior in your presence. Your proposal will be scrutinized both inside the negotiation room and behind closed doors, so it is vital to provide a clear and thorough business plan. Do not expect initial meetings to lead directly to decisions: decision-making in French firms is usually a lengthy affair.

Agreement-Building Process

Principles Details
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Agreement building in France tends to begin with general principles. It is advisable that you come to the negotiation room prepared with a list of positive and negative reasons why your counterparts should make a deal with you. Do not downplay problems; rather, air them and suggest ways to minimize them, and stress the benefits that outweigh them.

Expect extensive debate on all issues, and protracted negotiating sessions. The French dislike bargaining and abhor haggling. Note that initial offers and final agreement on prices rarely differ by more than 25 to 30 percent.

It might be useful to mention politely and in a subtle manner that you have checked with competitors regarding costs and services.

Meetings will eventually establish an oral agreement on the terms of the deal, but it is highly advisable that you follow up each meeting with a polite and friendly letter, summarizing the areas of agreement. This may also help in cutting down the time it takes to draft the final contract.

Agreement Form

General Specific
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The French are often somewhat general in terms of building an agreement. The responsibility often falls on the foreign partner to follow up meetings with specific recommendations on how to proceed in a practical manner.

The strength of the relationship and not the specificity of the clauses in a contract will usually determine how closely an agreement is adhered to, and how ultimately successful a business relationship is. The French are used to conducting local business with friends and long-established colleagues, and show preference in their work commitment accordingly.

A handshake typically seals the deal, but be prepared that a signed contract may take a long time to be agreed upon. Foreigners are often held to the contract in a rigid way, while sometimes the French consider themselves obligated by the contract only as long as a good relationship is maintained between the parties.

The assessments detailed in this article are intended for informational purposes only. They reflect typical attitudes within a given country or culture, and are not intended to describe any specific individual or business. World Trade Press is not responsible for any action taken on the basis of the information contained herein.

World Trade Press would like to acknowledge the research of Jeswald W. Salacuse (“Ten Ways That Culture Affects Negotiating Style: Some Survey Results,” Negotiation Journal, July 1998, Plenum Publishing Corporation) as the basis, with modifications, for the assessment categories described in this article.