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Working in France

How Non-Europeans Can Work Legally

Just as an American from any state is free to live and work in another state, so the citizens of the European Union's 25 member states can choose to settle in another member state. If you want to live in Europe and you are one of the lucky ones who can obtain an EU nationality because of European ancestors, then go for it, as it will make you able to sidestep the queue of Americans wanting to move to Europe — a queue that appears to be of the same size as Europeans wanting to move to the U.S. Another "easy" way is to marry an EU citizen. Beware, though, that freedom of movement for eight out of the ten new EU member states that joined in 2004 will not be active until 2007 or later, so wait a few years before going to Hungary to search for a husband or wife.

Globalization has enabled goods to flow more and more freely, but there is no globalization in sight for the movement of people. Our governments seem determined to keep up the fence between the U.S. and the EU. Getting over the fence means finding out where it is lowest, and you must be patient. Patience is particularly important in France; without it you risk getting a heart attack. Be prepared for everything to move slower--except freeway traffic and high-speed trains on days without strikes. The only things that can make a Frenchman move fast is going to lunch or to vacation.

French unemployment remains stable at 10 percent, and many companies hesitate to employ because of the rigid French Working Code that makes laying off difficult and outlaws temporary employment, except in limited cases. France is over-regulated. The burden of the ever-increasing number of regulations slows everything. There is virtually no economic growth in France.

Work Permits

Going through the hoops of obtaining a French work permit for a non-European is just not on, unless you are a highly skilled professional if no European can be found for the position that work permits are mostly issued in such cases. To this category includes IT contractors, engineers, and other specialists who may be hired by foreign companies that have service contracts in France. In general, the The American Chamber of Commerce in France says, the opportunities are in services and technology.

In 2003, France issued only 6500 visas for permanent employment, of which 313 were to Americans. The construction industry and hotel-restaurant sectors accounted for a large part.

If you belong to the majority who cannot explain what a computer's hexadecimal ASCII codes mean, then how about picking fruit. 14,566 visas were issued in 2003 to seasonal agriculture workers, mainly in the sunny south. The bad news is that because of special agreements, 90 percent of them went to Poles and Moroccans, so I suggest polishing up your fruit-picking knowledge before trying this category and avoid being picky if offered a job. Alternatively, get Polish or Moroccan nationality.

Scientists, artists, and authors belong to special visa categories. If you can get a contract in one of these sectors, then you will have fewer problems getting your visa. Numbers are low, however. Only 1162 scientist visas and 375 artist-author visas were issued in 2003.

Start Your Own Company

If you have the courage, you can start up a company. A little-known treaty between the U.S. and France gives the mutual right of establishing companies. The treaty also says that in cases that it does not strictly cover, such as creating a small business that is not a company in a legal sense or simply becoming self-employed, the governments should interpret their respective laws as liberally as possible.

This is one of the places where the fence is low if you have a good business idea and enough capital to support yourself a year. The current requirement is roughly 1,800 euros per month. To set up as business advisor, translator, journalist or another unregulated profession, you need no other approval than a visa with that activity mentioned.

You must describe your activity on a form provided by a French consulate, including what your background and qualifications to exercise that activity are. "Teaching English" is often the first suggestion I hear from Britons and Americans. However, you will be one in a crowd. Competition is fierce, payment is low, and despite the poor state of the Frenchmen's English skills, you should not count on earning a living from that alone. Remember that the U.K. is close to France and that Britons need neither work nor residence permits to settle in France and teach Oxford English.

The French may be running their own country down economically, but that does not prevent expats from establishing their own "economy in the economy." With the growing number of English-speaking expats in France it is worth considering how to target them with services or products that they cannot get from French companies. The number of shops selling British food products that are otherwise unavailable in France, such as baked beans, Danish bacon and Indian curries, is growing and while Paris and the Riviera have a selection of relocation companies, the rest of France is only scarcely covered. Since a real Frenchman will remain in the place he was born all his life, he has no need for relocation services, so the relocation sector is largely unknown in France. Since the government has not discovered it, there are no laws to tell you what you cannot do. Unregulated sectors are where you may find luck. However, if you plan to sell goods, your activity becomes "commercial," and you will have to make a demand for a carte de commercant together with your visa application.

Unregulated activities like translation and relocation belong to the "visitor" visa category. A total of 7616 visitor's visas were issued in 2003, but official figures don't show how many allowed an activity. Other immigrants in the visitor category are artists and authors that exercise independently of a contract.

If you cannot get permission to work in France, then the obvious solution is not to work but go there anyway. If you have a bag of money to live off at least one year, then you can obtain a visitor's visa. Another way of avoiding work is to study. Nearly half of all long-term visas issued are student visas. As a student, you can obtain permission to work half time.

Whatever you decide to try, do your homework and do it well. The French government provides very complete information on the Internet, but don't expect civil servants to know the laws they are supposed to administer. A typical civil servant will know the mainstream procedures, but if you ask him about something more complicated or rare, chances are that he won't know anything about it, and rather than admitting that he'll just say that it's not possible. I have stopped counting the number of times I've had to explain French law to French civil servants to obtain something the law entitles me to. You would be well advised to write in your visa application exactly which legal articles you believe entitle you to your visa if you are not in a main category. A representative in France—such as an expat advisor or a legal advisor—may help you with this.

However infuriating the attitude of a sulky civil servant may be, never lose your temper. If you do, the person will see it as a personal victory and a manifestation of his power. Always remain calm and polite. Fortunately, the sulky type is found less frequently than just 20 years ago, and you will find that a civil servant can also be flexible and helpful. The key is to adapt to the French way when interacting with anyone. The lunch break is taken very seriously and typically goes from noon to 2 p.m. Telephoning anyone at 11:55 is asking for trouble.

I will look more closely at dos and don'ts in France in a future article. Understanding French mentality is a key to success in France. Moving to France is not about bringing all your potted plants along; it's all about sowing your seeds in French soil and nurturing them with French fertilizer. This is often how you get the most beautiful plants.

For More Info

French American Chamber of Commerce in Paris

French foreign relations: Visa information and forms (in French);

French laws (in French):

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