The French journalist, Denis Brulet, responds to the the French in our February issue, reflecting on the feature on the difficulties of doing business with English character and the deadly rituals of the City.
On a clear day the cliffs of Dover are easily visible from the beaches of the Pas de Calais, in fact only 32 kilo-metres lies between. But many French people working in Britain will assure you that they are the longest 32 kilometres in the world. Even the Channel Tunnel is unlikely to weld together the rigidly opposed attitudes of these two countries, forged, presumably during the Hundred Years' War. Moreover, Britain, still nostalgic for its imperial past, is not ready to give in to the siren calls of the Continent (especially if they are French), regardless of whether it is ruled by Thatcherites, Majorites, conservatives or socialists, monarchists or, who knows, maybe even one day by republicans.
Being a Frenchman, I naturally had some reservations about the British when I first came to work here eight years ago. But I have since revised my opinions of them and even developed a certain admiration for this nation which takes so much pleasure in analysing its own decline - too much, in fact, to be taken seriously.
In professional terms, what I have learnt most here, working as the managing director of a Franco/English financial publishing company, is humility - British executives can tolerate being proved wrong, unlike we hot-tempered Frenchmen.
I have also discovered the famous British sense of humour. I was its bait one day during the Gulf War when a top business executive congratulated me warmly in public on the great breakthrough made the previous night by the columns of French tanks in southern Iraq. 'Frankly though,' he added, no doubt carried away by his own enthusiasm, 'it was a brilliant idea of the British to delegate that part to the French, as it left our men and the Americans free to do the real job in Kuwait.' A French person working in London quickly learns that talking about his/her professional, cultural, or social background will not improve their standing in business circles. Foreigners are rarely given the chance to bring up the life and customs of that no-man's-land which, in Britons' minds, sums up the Continent. There are, though, three exceptions to the rule on not discussing France's merits: Bordeaux wine (the region still belongs, in spirit at least, to the English); skiing in the Alps (even if non-British skiers are a hazard on the slopes); and Provence (since the enormous success of Peter Mayle's book A Year in Provence which describes, in idyllic terms, life in the Luberon).
French people should remember another fundamental rule when working here: not to try to impose attitudes, rules or contracts which might not conform to British tradition and that have not been duly endorsed by British solicitors and a British chief accountant. I learnt this to my cost the day an official from the Foreign Office refused to give me a work permit for a New Zealand journalist because, the civil servant explained, we had published our advertisement in a 'non-representative' newspaper. After puzzling over this I realised that he meant 'non-British'. The advertisement had appeared in The International Herald Tribune which is published in Paris.
The notion that business law is not an exact science is also something useful to bear in mind when doing business in London. Indeed, the highly ambiguous formulae invented by City businessmen through the centuries seem to have one main purpose: to save them from finding themselves with their backs against the wall. If these fail, a City businessman will resort to the most flagrant dishonesty and specious arguments to avoid the above humiliation.
I came across a glaring example of this British bad faith around the time of the Maxwell, Polly Peck and BCCI scandals: 'It seems to me,' announced a top member of the banking fraternity, 'that these are not really the City's problems. If you look at them closely, the only thing the businesses had in common was that they were all run by foreigners'. The fact that Robert Maxwell was an MP before he robbed the Mirror Group pensioners, and that the account holders of BCCI were, for the most part, British people (who thought they were protected by the laws and the authority of their country) seemed to be of little consequence to him.
I think that English executives' surprising - I mean surprising, for the French - reactions to Continentals is due to their fear of foreigners (the Japanese, another insular people, have the same problem). Abroad on business, City executives behave just like British tourists on the Costa del Sol: they do everything possible to avoid disrupting their normal lifestyle.
If an English businessman is obliged to attend a meeting overseas, he will do so with one or two of his colleagues. He will fly, if at all possible, with British Airways (at least they speak in English, and there is no mistaking the origins of those little sandwiches of hard bread). His secretary will have reserved a room for him in a hotel that is part of a British chain. The bill will be paid in London, in pounds sterling. This way he will escape two nagging doubts which haunt most Britons abroad (strange preoccupations for a nation that has travelled so much): 'What is included in the price?' (in other words, he's afraid of being ripped off); and 'Am I behaving in the way I should?' (meaning he is afraid of doing something contrary to local custom).
So, how will an Englishman behave at his meeting abroad? First of all, although possibly a graduate of a top British university (which he won't talk about unless he was a member of the Oxford or Cambridge crews), he will expect his opposite number to speak English, but he will make a big effort to say 'hello' in French.
Throughout the meeting he will never forget his objective. He will be realistic and tenacious, negotiating with authority but in a relaxed way. He will agree nothing without referring back to his superiors. He will expect you to present the same professional approach ... and not to go back on your word. The Frenchman, meanwhile, is likely to be rather vague and ill-prepared. And he may try to make false concessions. This is a bad move as the British love a battle of wits - it is the only way to convince them that they should make a compromise. Finally, he should remember that saying as little as possible about oneself is the best form of politeness according to City gentlemen.
British and French business deals tend to follow a set pattern: imagine the survival ritual of a preying mantis - first you seduce your victim, then devour him. A Frenchman's prop for this course of action is the business lunch, which lasts at least two hours. During this time the protagonists avoid, at all costs, talking business. The meal finishes with a proposal for a proper business meeting, later on. It is one of the least efficient and most agreeable ways of working.
An Englishman - assuming that he is on his own turf - will kick off much more coolly. He will invite you to join him in a draughty, bleak room at about 9am. And before you have quite identified the strange smell that greets you - stewed kidney beans perhaps? - a secretary hands you a cup of it.
A French businessman will normally try to escape the next encounter by going directly from this first meeting to drawing up the contract. No dice.
If he wants to succeed he will subsequently have to meet the heads of the company's financial, legal and administrative departments and anyone else who has an opinion on the project. By this time the Frenchman will be so desperate to get home he will agree to practically anything. And that is when the Englishman makes his move.