When conducting negotiations in France, as in all other circumstances where people come into contact with one another, it is particularly important not just to communicate naked facts. However, do not be deceived by the often friendly, even humorous and relaxed way of dealing with one another. When the French engage in talks they too fight for their own interests! Their strategic thinking is very pronounced and they assume that all participants are aware of this. Even if everyone makes an effort to function well together on a personal level, if it is a case of winning, they will pull out all the stops.
Negotiating Style And Tactics
The distribution of roles between the ›good guys‹ and the ›bad guys‹ is often apparent in negotiations with the French. Usually, the person in the higher position will take the role of the ›good guy‹ and leave the role of ›tough guy‹ for someone else in the group.
It may also be a negotiating tactic that the person who eventually makes the decisions, is not present at the talks. In so doing, the delegation’s authority is consciously divided so that there is still room for manoeuvre. This makes a diplomatic confirmation possible so that the personal relationship with the negotiating partners present is not impaired. The blame can be put on the level of hierarchy that is not present at the meeting.
Your French negotiating partners would not be surprised if you were to resort to these or similar methods too e.g. in order to increase the pressure. On the contrary, your French partners would probably be a little puzzled if you were to maintain that you could decide everything immediately and would like to return home with a final result in your pocket.
It is more likely that you will leave the conference with a decision which the French only see as an interim solution. The superior(s) who did not take part in the meeting will accept this decision or they might want to reach a decision themselves or even introduce an entirely new suggestion. This is called ›faire valider la decision‹ ‒ ›to validate the decision‹. It is therefore advisable to ask who is needed for the final decision to be taken. If you require a decision immediately after the meeting, you should make this clear beforehand and should give reasons for this.
It is customary in cultures where the facts are paramount, at the end of a meeting, to have achieved results that are ready for a decision. Most people, therefore, find it difficult to have to wait. They are then inclined to influence people, in order to give those who were also at the conference the power to make decisions or to have the decision-makers present at the meeting. Maybe you can achieve something.
However, as far as the French are concerned, this necessity does not exist, so you need to explain the reason for your actions. You should expect discussions! If you are seen to be too pushy it could be interpreted as being a negotiating strategy to secure an advantage. This not only increases the tension but also distrust. Sometimes it can help if you suggest contacting the absent decision-makers by telephone.
Negotiations in France can be very emotional. A certain element of playfulness is also often involved. ›C’est de bonne guerre!‹ is what they say. ›That‘s all part of a fair fight!‹. If you experience extrovert moods, anger or histrionics at the conference table, stay calm. It is usually not as dramatic as it seems at first. This behaviour should be recognised as a French negotiating strategy and taken seriously, but the content is not relevant. It is also important to remember that this show of emotion does not rule out the return to a rational level because in most instances it is used quite deliberately.
Good to know: in important negotiations in France, interruptions are used as a way of increasing the pressure.
In France information is often an obligation to collect. That means you are expected to acquaint yourself as comprehensively and exactly as possible with the planned topics before negotiations in France. You can then formulate questions using this pool of information e.g. in order to understand something better – or just to show that you have done your homework! The main thing is that you relate everything to the subject of the negotiations. Incorporating information into the debate is also welcomed.
A skilful negotiator I know once succeeded in making a clever move in a meeting where negotiations were particularly difficult, by quoting examples from his French opponents‘ company. Strictly speaking, these had nothing to do with the actual subject of the talks but he was able to put them to good use. He did not come by these examples easily. He had prepared his case carefully and collected information via his networks and other sources, pieced them together and used them at the right moment.
For this reason, it can be helpful if you do not go to negotiations in France on your own: four ears and four eyes hear and see more. You then have more chance of gathering all the elements together. If you need more time you can ask for a break, or negotiations can be broken down into stages so that the time between the sessions can be used to examine all aspects.
Line Of Argumentation
Even though emotions are acceptable in France discussions are still logically rational and strategically orientated. Facts and technical knowledge are not the only things that convince your counterparts. It is no good having excellent technology if it is strategically unfitting.
The French have practised the logical three steps thesis, antithesis and synthesis since their childhood. This order can be recognised in negotiations even if not everything is stated explicitly but only implied. That is one of the characteristics of the French style of communication: logically rational but not always explicit.
Negotiations in France, therefore, do not only consist of figures, the underlying line of argumentation is also important. Factual arguments are submitted – but that is not all. Participants defend their own interests, not all explanations are rational and real. Negotiations are a war of figures but also a game, an art.
That is why French partners become sceptical when the line of argumentation is of a purely factual nature and they want to know what lies behind it. They start suspecting other reasons and interests behind factual information. This different approach often causes bewilderment in meetings: one side starts looking for non-existent ulterior motives, the other wonders either about prices they cannot understand or about emotions. It is a case of keeping your nerve and concentrating on your goal so that everyone can focus on the same issues.
France’s geographical location means it is at the junction between the more factually orientated north and the business culture of the Mediterranean regions. Here the slogan is: bargaining is fun!
Generally speaking, however, and this applies to the whole country, more allowance is made for a strategic negotiating margin, than further north. This can be achieved either directly via the price or by means of other variable factors such as delivery time, quantity, packaging etc., and of course, depends on the product and the sector. No-one expects the price quoted at the beginning of a conference to have been realistically calculated.
Even though it may be your company’s policy, or part of your culture to calculate a fair and realistic price from the outset and to substantiate and defend this price, your French colleagues will find it very difficult to believe that this is your best offer. That is especially true of the south of France. They assume that the first price quoted is a guide and that more offers will follow. Many sales representatives routinely have a scale of discounts which can be ›granted‹ gradually, depending on how the talks progress. These are sales tactics that are used not only in negotiations in France.
Agreements And Contracts
Whether you should insist on written documentation and minutes after successful negotiations depends very much on the context. Written contracts are normal and legally binding in negotiations for purchasing and selling. Texts should be checked carefully because they are the legal basis if problems arise.
As a rule, you can rely on your counterpart’s word in France if that is sufficient for you – and after you have made sure that his agreement has been confirmed by the highest level! No one will be offended if you underline the verbal agreement by sending your counterpart a simple, friendly e-mail, for more certainty. You can also add a copy for the manager (CC). The French often do this because they feel that it is helpful to distribute information on a broad basis covering several levels of hierarchy. It shows everyone that the boss has been informed. The message is then: the procedure is transparent, everyone taking part knows that negotiations lead to result X.
Do not forget that in spite of your determination in reaching your own goals, the tone and style of subsequent communication should be very friendly, even relaxed and witty. You could say: tough in negotiations, but friendly in personal contact.
Deadlines are often part of a written agreement after negotiations in France. Usually, they are exactly coordinated and defined. However, such formulations as ›inform one another in the medium term‹ or ›the long-term plan is that …‹ can sometimes be found in French contract texts. What is long, or short? Expressions like long, medium or short-term might represent more or less time than that which you would consider to be appropriate. It is therefore advisable to inquire or find out more often than called for by the contract, or to define details exactly.
The French sometimes consider a deadline to be a period of time. If a time limit is intended to be an exact date it should be made clear in the contract that this is the case. Alternatively, it can be pointed out in a friendly manner that compliance with a particular date really is necessary. The best way of ensuring this is to try and make your counterpart feel personally responsible for keeping to this deadline.
Breach Of Contract
In case of dispute e.g. breach of contract, it is possible to consult a lawyer either as a threat or as the beginning of a legal confrontation. Before things get that far, however, you should first try, in a telephone call, to reach a solution without going to court. You should also consider visiting the other party. By travelling to see your counterpart for a personal meeting you are displaying willingness and commitment. This may well help to keep the lawyers away. Trust is built up and strengthened by personal contact.
If the decisions and results of negotiations have to be confirmed by higher levels of management, or if there are still a few points that need clarification, additional negotiations are often necessary. Sometimes the scope of these issues is small or they are not very important. In that case, it is possible that not all participants will take part in these additional negotiations.
Additional negotiations may also be initiated in France even if it appears that everything has been finalised. In this case, it is accepted that you wish to reap the benefits from the situation. If, for example, you have to wait longer for results, you can ask for more. You can then say with a smile: ›C’est de bonne guerre!‹
If you want to negotiate further projects, you should not assume that the same conditions as for the first project apply automatically.
Extract from Business Culture France, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag