Most people have strong emotions about France, or more specifically about the French. At times their behavior is like that of a class-bully, New Zealand will never forget the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, France's attempts to criticize US policy only evoke a hostile response and the rest of the world reacts in horror to its far right National Front party. French policy in central Africa continues to be "active", for example the Central African Republic's President, Ange-Felix Patasse, accused France in 2001 of "complicity" in a failed coup attempt - BBC 18 June 2001. On the other hand France is a prosperous country with a healthy manufacturing sector, a life-style envied by many, the home of high-fashion, of attractive women, and good wine.
Much of the problem is that France, in the past, saw itself as the centre of the world; the French Revolution the model for the world, Napoleon the conquerer of Europe, French the language of diplomacy, and France the centre of the high arts and culture. Unfortunately there was always a large element of myth in this story. France was the wealthest nation in 18th century, it was the leader of fashion and the arts, but the French Revolution for all its high ideals produced a blood bath (The Terror) and the French saw their revolution hijacked by a Corsian dictator. Finally the victories of Napoleon were overcome by the victories of the Russians, Prussia, Nelson and Wellington.
The Napoleonic era ended with the clear victory of Britain, which, rapidly industrializing, was well-placed to exploit its advantages and it dominated the 19th century - The Victorian Age (while Prussian military power was free to develop on the European continent). As Britain's influence was weakened by the World Wars of the 20th century its dominance passed to another English-speaking nation, the US. The period after 1945 saw the dominance of English-speaking culture being further strengthened, and the rise of IT, and especially the Internet, established the clear dominance of the English language in international and technical spheres. France, with its focus since the 1950s on developing a partnership with Germany, in order to dominate the development of the European Union, has been poorly placed to deal with these changes. Long before its wars with Germany, England was its historic enemy; the English (and their French allies) burnt Joan of Arc, and the French have historically felt superior to other nations, especially English speaking countries. The French also have a different view of the world from anglo-saxons; ideas have an importance in France that people who focus on the bottom-line rarely understand. French people will readily refer to philosophy, even when discussing a football match, and the term "intellectual" is not generally considered to be an insult in France. The French will follow policies because they like the concept; this makes them good at grand projects, such as the TGV, whereas the US and UK could never consider spending on railways on this scale without clear evidence of profits at some stage. France also appears to be a country controlled by a small elite who share the same set of ideas, such as belief in the idea of European institutions; the public rarely influence policy, unless there is a full-scale riot or national strike, when they are brought-off with some financial deal.
France is therefore a country of paradoxes; an intensively conservative nation that proclaims its freedoms while burdening its citizens with rules and regulations. A country that looks more to the past for its glory than to the future, a country with a strong culture which fears for its cultural independence and a republic dominated by elites.
Map of France
However it seems that the concept of national identity and the French language is increasingly defined by not being anglo-saxon. This in a country which loves American movies, has many wild-west clubs, and cooperates effective with its US and British opposite numbers in peace-keeping operations - paradox is another French quality.
Relations with the US
The New York Times 14 October 2002 reported that, "The impasse between the United States and France over military action in Iraq has deepened in recent days after an effort to reach a compromise stalled, with the French insisting that the Americans must come back to the United Nations Security Council before they can use force."
In business act in an honest and reasonable manner, avoid the heated arguments that are sometimes a feature of French life (I had a female French lawyer who would go into battle in operatic style when she thought it necessary). If possible have a French colleague to translate the language and social messages, most French business people now speak English, but you will need to be able to translate the asides and hidden messages. French businesses, like their State, are run by one man, the PDG, French business is rarely run by a team of equals. The PDG (President Director General) is chairman, CEO and managing director in one post. French businessmen are often extremely well-educated and know a lot about US culture and behavior. They are not allowed by law to work more than 35 hours a week, inspectors check up on firms to ensure this law is complied with, and they take extremely long vacations, the nation virtually shuts down for August. Unions still enjoy real power in France and tax rates, like many continental european countries, remain high (though the in-coming French government -June 2002- wants to reduce taxes over the next few years).
In dealing with the French be careful to deal with all the issues and leave nothing to chance, don't leave any matters to be dealt with in the future. The French will honor the letter of the deal, but make sure that you have agreed exactly what the deal is, their view of events may be very different from yours. Don't make the mistake of underrating the French, just because they don't act in the way you are used to, French companies have produced extremely good technology, France has an excellent aerospace and electronics industry and the Airbus is assemblied in France. France also maintains the Ariane rocket manufacturing and launch program, in association with other european countries. France has a wealth of first-class manufacturing companies and a large number of well-educated managers. France has also benefited from the European Union, and in particular from the Common Agricultural Policy, which has poured money into the pockets of French farmers.
Most people welcome the chance to visit France, if only to dine out and buy presents for home, but you need to research well and be totally focused on business whilst negotiating, the long vacations may mean that your trip is delayed until September, but the French will be refreshed and will have thought the deal out with care.