Although entrepreneur is indeed a French word, you’re probably better off being an employee in this country. Having been both, here’s my take on the advantages of French employee status…
I should first provide some background, so you understand where I’m coming from. Way back in the last millennium, armed with degrees in Business, French, and International Economics, I worked for several years in Corporate America. I had challenging and fairly well-paid positions in Financial Analysis departments in both a national home-healthcare company in Southern California and a Fortune 50 telecom in Washington, DC. Working with high-level executives in a country with at-will employment – meaning you can be let go at any time, without reason – makes for stressful work and the feeling you must always put in extra. If you decide to do a crazy thing like take a week’s vacation from the pressure and long hours, you’d better check your email and voicemail every day if you expect to have a job when you get back. My boss was responding to her voicemails within hours after giving birth – true story. And in the US, if you do get let go, there’s little chance of getting a severance package, and unemployment benefit is not enough to pay the bills. On the upside, I did present my work in front of the CFO of the telecom and was promoted regularly for my efforts.
Fast forward to when the telecom sent me to their internet subsidiary in Paris in 2000. I was doing similar Financial Analysis type work, but everything else about the work environment blew my mind. The bad surprise was that I didn’t feel as respected as a young woman in the French workplace, with male colleagues providing daily assessments of my fashion choices and me no longer being allowed to present my work directly to the hierarchy. On the other hand, there were numerous happy surprises, stemming from the 5 legal obligations for employers in France:
- Provide paid work
- Execute the employment contract in good faith
- Provide employee training
- Ensure the health and safety of employees
- Provide professional development support
Here are what I consider the top 10 advantages of being an employee in France:
Work-life balance (35 hrs/wk, no emails off-hours)
The main difference between working life in the US vs. France is the idea of balance. As we explain to our clients, frustrated by short opening hours and minimal customer service – the French work to live, not live to work. It is illegal to require employees to be available via email or phone outside of normal working hours!
I started working in France right when they were passing legislation for the 35-hour workweek. In the US, as in most developed countries, the standard workweek is 40 hours.
5 weeks paid vacation plus RTT
Already feeling like a kid on Christmas morning when I heard about the standard 5 weeks of paid vacation, imagine how giddy I became when they added 11 annual days off to compensate me for working longer than 35 hours per week! And employees are expected to take their vacation in France! Our company even gave us extra days if we took more than 2 weeks at a time during the summer months. Many stores and offices close for a full month in the summer and/or in the winter.
Paid sick leave and family leave, mutuelle
Depending on where you work in other countries, you may have access to paid leave for sickness, maternity, or other family care obligations, but this is something you can count on as an employee in France. I was very grateful to have been able to take six months’ leave after the birth of each child. And while French universal healthcare is already quite generous, French companies cover a large part of the cost of supplemental health insurance, or mutuelle for their employees.
Job security – CDI for rentals, loans, etc.
Not only are work contracts rare in the US (remember ‘employment at will’), they certainly are not for eternity! The usual French employment contract, the Contrat à Durée Indéterminée or CDI, offers job security that boggles the foreign mind. Unless the employee commits serious misconduct, or there is a general economic layoff, the job is basically guaranteed for life.
There IS such a thing as a free lunch if you’re an employee in France! Although it’s not always legally required, many companies subsidize their employees’ lunches. When there’s a company cantine, 7.10 € is paid by the employer and 9.90 € when there’s no cantine provided., while employees who must eat at a restaurant for lunch get 20.20 €.
Help with commuting costs
All employers, regardless of the size of the company’s workforce, must cover 50% of the price of their employees’ public transportation subscriptions for travel between their residence and their place of work.
CE/CSE – the comité d’entreprise or works council
French companies with more than 50 employees are required to have a works council, formed by a general election, and fund it with 0.20% of the total salary budget. The CE often provides special discounts to employees for leisure activities, like tickets to the cinema or other cultural activities and vacation costs. They can also organize low-cost outings for the employees – Alex and I met during a company ski trip such as this, and later went with the CE to the Maldives for 10 days!
Training and médecin du travail
All companies have an obligation to provide training to their employees, during working hours and remunerate them for it. In addition, all employees benefit from their own professional training account (CPF), funded with at least 500 euros each year, which follows them throughout their careers.
As all French employers must ensure the physical and mental well-being of their workers, each one must consult the ‘workplace doctor” annually, free of charge.
Rights defended, career progression
There is a personnel delegate for companies with more than 11 employees, who is meant to defend the rights of workers. If an employee feels they’re being treated unfairly, or they’re dissatisfied with their career development, they can consult the delegate who will advocate for them to the management.
Severance and unemployment
If your French employer lays you off, the French Labor Code requires them to pay you severance. The minimum amount is equal to: one-quarter of a month’s salary per year of employment, up to 10 years of employment; and one-third of a month’s salary per year over 10 years of employment.
The unemployment compensation rules and amount change regularly, but if you are laid off, you are entitled to payments while you’re unemployed that are enough to live on.
There are other exceptional bonuses that employees can receive, like employee shares in the profit or even a ‘prime de rideau’ or stipend to fit out your new lodging when you’ve moved for work.
So if you know what it’s like to be an employee in the US, I bet you’re as impressed as I was with the comfort of a French work contract. Of course there are downsides, after all, I decided to give up a cushy CDI to become an entrepreneur. I found the low salaries (compared to the US and the UK), subordination, and lack of freedom and agency, as well as the feeling of not having a meaningful impact to be frustrating enough to take the leap. Many people prefer security to risk, but I was taught in my business classes that the reward is commensurate with the level of risk!
Dennelle is the President of Renestance and a bilingual American who’s lived in France since 2000. She loves so many things about France, its language, culture, geography, quality of life... that she started a business to help others realize their dreams of living in this incredible place.
All articles by: Dennelle Taylor Nizoux