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After working for a couple of years in Paris in the early 1990s, Michael Johnson, an American, started advising fellow foreigners coming to France to “accept the unpleasant reality of management-labor polarization.” Johnson, who’s since moved to London to head communications at ICO Global Communications, warns American managers “to set aside any hope of creating team effort … . The French business environment is everything they didn’t teach you at business school.” To be sure, management is changing in France. The younger generation is a little more flexible, team-oriented, and informal. But the old saying still holds true: “Plus �a change, plus c’est la m�me chose.” (“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”) Foreign executives coming to work in the world’s fifth-largest economy are well advised to understand how different the French can be. CULTURAL DIVIDE American mangers are taught to listen to subordinates, ask for information, conduct informal meetings and hold brainstorming sessions. That is because the United States has what sociologists call a “low-context culture.” The ideal is to be explicit: direct, linear, verbal. Channels of communication are clear. Working teams share information, cooperate and support each other. Appointments and projects have priority over everything — even the urgent demands of family. Americans climb the corporate ladder and stay on top by delivering results — fast — to shareholders. So they tend to look for quick, practical solutions, even when answers may falter long-term. U.S. managers are fact-oriented, distrusting complexity. They will experiment. Anything to get the job done. That is not the mind-set in France. As Jean-Claude Guez, a senior management adviser for Accenture Ltd. (formerly Anderson Consulting), says, “One of the most important things for Americans to take into consideration is the rigorous training … in pure mathematics and science that most French executives have gone through.” French managers distrust simple, fast answers. They enjoy thinking through problems, weighing the principles involved, and devising long-range solutions, even if those solutions offer more in theory than in practice. “We are s�duits (seduced) by what is brilliant,” says Claude B�b�ar, founder and now president of the supervisory board of AXA, one of the world’s largest insurance companies. “The Citroen car is a caricature of how we think … it is elegant, but fragile.” Highly educated French managers also act as experts in the workplace. They deliver instructions, answer questions and control meetings. Executives can be little Napoleons. Preserving power, and saving face, may be more of a priority than business. It’s therefore important to show French execs proper respect. Robert Pingeon, now a management consultant, says of his time as director general of Cigna Insurance Co. of Europe in Paris, that the French custom of “constant handshaking can be a bit of an ordeal … . I felt as if I was running for governor of New York.” PEOPLE FIRST France is a “high-context culture.” It’s all about affiliation and one’s place in the community. People are more important than schedules and projects. Executives and employees cultivate private networks and tend to hoard information. They don’t do business with people they don’t know — and trust. Contracts are not needed, except to set a general direction. Au fond (in essence), as the French like to say, France may be the birthplace of democracy — libert�, fraternit�, �galit� and all that — but corporate France makes no pretense at democracy. Executives are expected to act as patriarchs. This means they’ve great privileges — and heavy responsibilities. They must not only have the answers, but also assure the quality of their employees’ lives; in fact, the government insists upon it. Hence the secure employment, and 35-hour workweek, to name just a few of the French workers’ prerogatives. “Le patron fran�ais (head of a French company) has an emotional bond with his employees,” explains Axa’s B�b�ar. “In the U.S., if someone makes a mistake, he is thrown out. Here … if someone makes a mistake, we pardon him. If we have to fire someone, we do it, but with a bad conscience.” This article is reprinted with permission from Polly Platt, author of the book “French or Foe?” Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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