The relationship between Britain and France, in business as in so many other things, seems always to have been built on incomprehension, or at least on very different points de vue. The two former great colonial powers are said to have built their empires on very different institutional models, for example: trading posts or comptoirs de commerce for the British Empire, schools and cultural centres for the French. In other words the Frogs did it for la gloire, while the British just ventured abroad to make money.
Yet ever since the Industrial Revolution, these two ancient enemies have been co-operating widely with each other in trade, transfer of technology, business investment and, more recently, in the exchange of large numbers of managers and young workers. But can we ever really understand each other?
Well, recent history is full of examples of successful co-operation between the Frogs and the rosbifs, the most famous of all being Concorde. Despite different approaches to supersonic technology, despite linguistic and cultural barriers, this was an Anglo– French co-operation that resulted in a breakthrough unmatched by anything since. Indeed, the biggest disagreement that occurred during the project was over the spelling of ‘Concorde’, and even that was eventually resolved by an enlightened British minister of transport. More recently, we have seen the completion of the Channel Tunnel — for all its financial problems, a magnificent feat of engineering — and the Norman Foster-designed Millau viaduct, as well as countless cross-Channel acquisitions in both directions. Even our defence industries are co-operating: there has been talk of building naval ships together, which would surely be the biggest turnaround in the history of warfare at sea.
So yes, for all our differences, we have proved that we can work together. Today there are more than 350,000 French working in Britain and many young French professionals praise the benefits of learning from the British — even though what we encounter over here very often directly contradicts widely accepted French norms of business practice and etiquette.
We compatriots of Descartes like to look at business problems in conceptual terms — but we nevertheless appreciate the practical British approach. In France, a meeting is designed to share ideas and discuss problems in a rather intellectual way, whereas in Britain it is more about concrete solutions to those problems — and action plans.
French executives are very far from being exponents of the great British ‘stiff upper lip’. In fact, they can be quite emotional: one French approach is to win over the people in order to win the business. But equally, the French appreciate and seek to emulate the figure-based, return-on-investment focus of British businessmen.
The French business world has an acute sense of hierarchy and status — which means that we find the British preference for horizontal management structures refreshing and encouraging. It allows junior managers to propose efficient solutions even if they contradict their superiors’ opinions, rather than obliging them to propose measures to please the boss. We tend to find the British more modest, and more concerned with achieving trust by delivering their contractual promises, whereas the French sometimes sell their services in a boastful way.
The French still do some things better, however. A recent study showed that the average London worker eats his lunch in less than two minutes, while the Parisian enjoys his déjeuner d’affaires — which is not an indulgence, but an integral part of the deal-making process conducted in a more relaxed, human and intimate atmosphere. And both nationalities work long hours these days — but French workers feel obliged to work even longer ones to prove their commitment, while the British regard being able to leave on time for a six o’clock pint as a mark of their efficiency.
Do these stereotypes still hold true? The cultural gap between the average Frenchman and Briton remains wide, but in business it is narrowing: now the Frogs arrive on time and rosbif investors enjoy long déjeuners d’affaires! And as a matter of fact, the British love working with the French too. Despite recent rows about French ‘economic patriotism’, the number of British investment projects in France has been rising sharply, and the UK has recently moved up from fourth to third in the league of foreign investors in France. The current stock of British investment in France is no less than 1,800 companies, employing more than 240,000 people.
Our ways of thinking, our priorities and our table manners are utterly distinct. But I believe — backed by statistical evidence and many personal stories — that those contrasts are the very things that make Britain and France so complementary in business and investment. Vive la différence!
Philippe Yvergniaux is chief executive of Invest in France UK and a participant in the IQ2 London:Paris Festival, 6–8 October (www.iq2londonparisfestival.com).