Investment, Business & Self-Employment in France
"Solicitors in south east France have told me about how sleazy their region is"
(Quote by a French legal professional).
The French have a strong national identity, but in the south, and particularly Provence and the Riviera, the regional identifies are even stronger. They may be so strong that they get higher priority than law and justice to the detriment of anyone not from the region.
Friends in private and public sectors group together in what has been called criminal activity in the case of Jean-Noël Guérini, socialist senator and president of the Bouches du Rhône département council. He is accused of favouring his brother's company when attributing public contracts. The scandal is now so important that the Socialist Party is busy distancing itself from Mr. Guérini. Justice has not yet spoken.
Criminal activity may also hit locals, though. That happened in a particularly serious case where a CEO, Richard Armenante, in charge of a successful business in Marseilles was harassed for 15 years by a crook named Guy Mariani. Already before it started in 1996, Guy Mariani had been convicted three times. Nevertheless, the court in Aix en Provence illegally pronounced him judicial administrator of Richard Armenante's company, illegally moving the jurisdiction from Marseilles to Aix en Provence. Then president of the Tribunal de commerce in Marseilles, Jean Aubert, was in fact involved in deliberately targeting people who had attracted powerful enemies, handing their files to the convicted crook Guy Mariani with the deliberate aim of completely ruining the victims.
Guy Mariani had falsified countless documents, fabricating all the charges. Mr Armenante and his business was ruined, lost his house and his health and is now 50% handicapped. He spent six months in jail, falsely condemned by a corrupt justice system. Only 15 years later did justice clear him and condemn the crook to seven years in prison and €750,000 fine. A magistrate, Alain Serieyx, at the time president of the Chambre régionale des comptes, has witnessed that moving the jurisdiction to Aix en Provence and illegally appointing Guy Mariani as judicial administrator was part of a plot to destroy Richard Armenante morally and financially. You can read his original statement here. It's only one page. Further witness statements can be read here.
Communique_Presse_Armenante_Vs_Mariani_2010. PDF, new window.
Marseilles is a case in itself. The city managed to clean up the classic mafia many years ago. However, it has once again become the Chicago of France in a modern version. The organised mafia no longer exists, but its place has been taken by young people of north African origin living in concrete towers in the ghettos where they have been piled up without many prospects of any meaningful careers or lives. They thus handle the region's drugs needs in each their own ways. The number of shootings and executions between them has skyrocketed. Money transports are regularly violently attacked in daylight by massive force involving firearms and explosives.
Jacques Médecin was mayor of Nice from 1966 to 1990 when he fled to Uruguay under suspicion of corruption. He was extradited to France in 1994 where he was convicted and jailed.
Jacques Médecin on Wikipedia in English - only a brief summary.
According to a good friend who has worked as an American-French lawyer in Marseilles, southern France is simply too corrupt for investing. He strongly discourages it.
The rest of France is not without corruption of course. Former president Jacques Chirac was condemned for fraud in 2011 in connection with fictive employees at the Paris city hall when he was mayor, for the purpose of skimming public funds off to benefit his RPR Gaullist party.
Alain Juppé was also condemned on these charges, but that did not prevent president Nicolas Sarkozy from appointing Alain Juppé to the post of minister of foreign affairs. At the time of writing, 2011, France's minister of foreign affairs is a condemned crook. That's ok if you're one of the friends.
Jonathan Fenby has taken the trouble to write a 420-page book, 'On the Brink', about corruption in France.
For further examples of funny practices in France, you may want to read the page about professional practices in France, courts, administration, crime and fraud.
About general French cheating mentality, read more on this Streetwise-France page.
About dubious French commercial practices, read more on this Streetwise-France page.
Also read my page about travel warnings in France.
The important part of the French business world is not what you see on the surface but what you don't see underground. Friends' connections are numerous and span all private and public sectors of importance. It would be wrong to think that if you start a business, then that has nothing to do with the public sector. You can certainly do it, but you will be up against a hidden competition that consists of taking your business revenues in taxes and handing them out to your competitors.
When considering whether to get involved in business in France, do yourself the favour of reading this excellent, humorous, witty, and sarcastic article about how French industry revolves around politicians in the centre of the French universe:
Spiegel in English: Bonjour Tristesse: The Economic and Political Decline of France
The following article from This French Life is also worth reading, as it adds to the insight:
How the 'museum' that is France is slowly changing
The French government, regional councils and elected politicians say all the time that they want to attract investments and businesses to France. But what you need to understand is that they want to attract business so that they can further their own careers and causes by showcasing new businesses sponsored by them. Crisis or not, they all dispose of budgets of unknown sizes destined for handing out to friends starting the type of businesses they'd like to see. People who know how to lobby these politicians can obtain vast, even ludicrous subsidies for their businesses or associations. The way to make a business or association work in France is to find a way to get access to public money. If your project is politically correct, they may bend over backward to assist you. Don't worry if France is going bankrupt because they keep spending €3 for every €2 in tax revenue. Your politician 'friends' have already taken care of themselves, so they will still be there to assist you while the country is going over the financial edge.
If you prefer going it yourself, you may be up against all the difficulties imaginable, whether legal or not. The French hate competition. They see it as the incarnation of evil from the Anglo-Saxon capitalist world. If growth and business creation is not decreed, or at least perceived as decreed, by the public sector, then it is not worth having it, and it must be combatted as vermin. Difficulties may also happen if you start competing against a lobbying group such as taxis.
An innovative company in Avignon, EasyTake, got the idea of providing local discount transport. They were successful but attracted the ire of regional taxis who started demonstrating and taking EasyTake to court. The taxis managed to get a partial condemnation of EasyTake. They also managed to make EasyTake lose one of their two licence types, meaning EasyTake is no longer allowed to transport one single person - a restriction meant to discourage competition with taxis in the remaining type of licence.
Ryanair started its first French hub in Marseilles Airport in cooperation with the local councils and the airport when the new low-cost terminal was launched. But it didn't last long before Air France and their unions lobbied the French district attorney to take Ryanair to court over the aircraft crews' salaries being subject to social security charges in Ireland instead of France. Under president Sarkozy's reign, France had published a decree making such salaries subject to the high French social security charges in violation of European law. As a result, Ryanair announced the closure of the Marseilles hub and scrapped all their routes going out of the Marseilles hub, amounting to half of all the Marseilles flights. As soon as Ryanair was out, Air France announced the opening of several low-cost routes from the same terminal under their low-cost brand Transavia. What a funny coincidence. However, it would seem that after a reorganisation of their flight planning, Ryanair then reopened at least the same number of routes that they had cancelled, but without opening a hub in Marseilles. The planes just fly in, offload and reload, then take off. They don't remain overnight. EasyJet is subject to a similar law suit. We are still waiting for the outcomes.
"In 2010, police arrived and handed her a 30-day notice to close the business and leave France". This is how Adrian Leeds' Parler Paris newsletter of 8 April 2013 introduced a case of an American who had done everything by the book to invest in France and start a successful gourmet pet bakery and grooming salon in Paris. "Hat was forced to leave France, having lost seven years of her life's work and ambitions and all of her finances", the newsletter continues. Some civil servant didn't like her and her business, so it had to be destroyed. Destroying her business and deporting her was most likely a violation of the Convention of Establishment between the US and France, convention that makes it a treaty right for citizens of each nation to start and run businesses in the other nation and to obtain the necessary visas and work permits. But what the law says has no importance when the French administration act to destroy citizens. The French civil service is run by prejudice and other sentiments, not the law. France is in that aspect a banana republic. At the same time as they are destroying the foreign businesses they have already attracted, France is running PR campaigns to attract new business and investment from abroad. The problem with France and business is that they fail to understand that it's not enough with a PR campaign to attract new businesses, and that they also need to assure that the continuing business climate is acceptable for the businesses already there. Another more fundamental problem in French mentality is that they hate the success of others, and that those who do nothing expect the same standard of living as those who work hard for their success. Hence, a civil servant who does nothing else than fart in his chair from 9 to 5 for 40 years, and destroy the works of others, cannot get into his thick head that someone who invests his savings and works hard to succeed may earn more than him.
France can be fiercely business destructive if a business is not seen as politically correct.
Add to the above the risk of the euro exploding or imploding or whatever one wants to call it. The euro was constructed on a political foundation against all economic wisdom about a single currency requiring a single economic government. This is why the euro is going from crisis to crisis without a solution in sight. There is no guarantee that the euro will exist next year. If the euro goes away, a new franc may be devalued 20% to 30%, meaning your investment will instantly lose 20% to 30% of its value.
Still Want to Start a Business in France?
In case you still want to risk your money, time and health in France, the rest of the page contains practical information, but it does not tell you how to lobby politicians and get into the 'friends' circles.
Essential Business Vocabulary
TPE = Très Petite Entreprise = very small business
The English term self-employed would be auto-employé in French if translated literally. It isn't translated like that, perhaps to underscore the different legal status of a self-employed and the different system for social security charges, as compared with an employee.
If we refer to individuals earning money from activities where they are not employees and where there is no limited company, various terms are used to refer to the same thing:
A particular type of entrepreneur is the
who is an entrepreneur individuel who has opted for a super-simplified scheme for income tax and social security charges. In all these cases, there is no separate legal entity for the business. The individual and the business is one and the same natural person.
Another term you will often see is the
which refers to a somewhat simplified scheme for calculating social security charges but which can refer to an entreprise individuelle as well as a limited company.
As for the legal form of the business, the basic choice is between:
Back to standard entrepreneurs: you will also need to choose a tax scheme.
For the individual types of business, the simplest form is auto-entrepreneur.
Please note that the auto-entrepreneur scheme is presently under review by the new socialist government. While they have made it known that they will not scrap the scheme, it is uncertain how the system will evolve.
Annual turnover must not exceed 81,500 euros if you sell tangible items, or 32,600 euros for other activities, notably services (2011 and 2012 figures). In case of a new business created during the year, these amount are reduced on a pro-rata basis. Instead of paying 10 different social security contributions, you pay a flat rate each quarter or month based on your actual turnover that period. The amount paid is final. This is close to the British self-employment model with the notable exception that no expenses can be deducted so you are taxed on your gross turnover. Income tax may be either an additional flat rate or taxation as salary on the tax return. The flat rate option, known as versement libératoire de l'impôt sur le revenu, is only available if your revenu fiscal de référence, fiscal reference revenue, a figure that appears on your tax return, two years earlier did not exceed €26,420 (for the 2010 income) per part (see "French income tax explained" for an explanation of the parts). You are automatically VAT exempt and cannot opt in to VAT, something that is a disadvantage in certain situations, for example mainly business clients that recover the VAT, or an activity where only 5.5% VAT applies so you would have received VAT refunds in the normal system. No minimum turnover is required (except that if you declare no income at all during 24 successive months, you will lose your entitlement to the scheme) and there are no minimum contributions (with one exception, see below).
All the business schemes without exception entitle you to public healthcare and retirement.
These two articles give you a good idea about what not to do as
The next simplest option is micro-entreprise in various forms and denominations if the revenue is below a the thresholds mentioned for auto-entrepreneurs. In a micro-entreprise, the fiscal deduction of business expenses is replaced by a fixed allowance as a percentage of turnover. The fixed deduction varies between 34% for non-commercial activities such as the liberal professions to 50% for commercial services and 71% for sale of tangible goods. If you are a micro-entreprise, then you are automatically VAT exempt. It makes life simpler, but the 34% for non-commercial activities often doesn't cover the actual expenses, and in the beginning of the activity, before the business is developed to become profitable, you lose a large part of your fiscal deductions. Becoming VAT exempt is not automatically beneficial.
Below a certain threshold, with or without micro-entreprise, you have the option of becoming VAT exempt. Consider whether your clients are mostly VAT registered or mostly individuals.
If you have the choice, consider that under current law and practice, women who create or take over businesses may obtain credits guaranteed by the State and women with small children get priority if their business is in difficulty and they apply for help paying social security contributions. Men in the same circumstances are excluded or do not have priority. This is clearly illegal discrimination but for so long as the discrimination continues, a couple starting a business may be better off having the woman as owner than the man.
Many expats moving to France keep their foreign-registered companies in place abroad, keep them taxed abroad and don't register them in France. The most common reasons are to avoid the complexities of French administration and the high taxes and social charges in France. Many refer to the right of any EU national to run companies in other member states. They make the assumption that a company is necessarily taxed in the country where it is registered. They overlook the fact that the double taxation agreements between France and other countries contain very complex rules for determining the country where a company is taxed. The basic rule is that if you keep running and managing a foreign company from France, then the company is taxable in France, regardless of the country where it is registered. If it were really that simple to avoid French charges, then there wouldn't be many companies left in France. But it is not that simple. It is in fact extremely complex to set up a legal arrangement to manage a foreign company and have it taxed abroad. In reality, many expats are committing tax evasion and exposing themselves to heavy penalties if the taxman finds out. The French tax authorities may be messy, but they are not stupid, and they are aware of this sort of tax evasion, whether it is committed in good or bad faith. If they suspect that major fraud is taking place, then they can and will raid your home and business premises and turn everything upside down. There is a further complication in French tax law called abus de droit (law abuse). It is a measure that says that if you make a legal fiscal arrangement with the sole purpose of paying less tax, then the taxman can legally disregard your arrangement and tax you according to the reality of the situation. Morale: Don't play amateur with your business arrangements but get professional advice to assure that you can sleep at night. You may end up with the conclusion that many others have arrived at: That France is not a business-friendly country and that it would be more profitable to run your business elsewhere. It may mean that you cannot live in France but only visit the country without becoming resident. You can't have your cake and eat it. If you want to live in France, then you must accept it with all its quirks - or run the risk of being ruined the day you're found out.
A foreign business that has a subsidiary in France with a business establishment and employees in France must register with the local Centre de Formalités des Entreprises (CFE) according to the type of activity taking place. See the Directory of CFEs.
A foreign business that has no business establishment in France but employees in France who are subject to French social security must register with the Centre national des firmes étrangères (CNFE) at the Urssaf du Bas-Rhin which is responsible for this specific situation.
A foreign business that has neither business establishment nor employees in France but activities subject to French tax, such as for example VAT or corporate tax (impôt sur les sociétés) must register with Service des impôts des entreprises étrangères (SIE).
And now that we're at it, let's quash another myth: That it is only a matter of counting days to determine where you are resident for tax purposes. The days criteria appears in list of criteria to determine tax residence in the double taxation agreements after the following criteria: Where you have a permanent home and where your personal and financial ties (centre of vital interests) are. For example, if you've installed your family in a home in France and you travel outside France more than half the year, then you are still liable for tax in France, unless you can show that your financial interests outside France are so strong that they outweigh the interest of your family in France.
Start Business in France Get expert answers on starting and running your small business in France (in English).
Simulator to compare different tax schemes. The French association of accountants have produced a downloadable simulator in an Excel file to guide the entrepreneur about which tax scheme is most profitable, based on simple criteria.
Employing Staff in France
Before hiring staff in France, be sure to fully understand what you are doing. French employment regulations are among the most restrictive in the world, making it difficult or impossible to lay off employees. Taxes and social security contributions nearly double the cost to the employer compared with the employee's take-home salary. Getting it wrong could be very expensive if a disgruntled employee takes you to the employment court conseil des prud'hommes.
The main employment law is the Code du Travail.
The Code du Travail is supplemented with a long list of conventions collectives that provide additional provisions, sometimes overruling or interpreting the provisions of the Code du Travail, for specific sectors. This includes minimum salaries that may be higher for certains than the SMIC.
The weekly working hours are 35 hours unless otherwise agreed.
France has a minimum salary called the SMIC (Salaire Minimum Interprofessionnel de Croissance). The present and past SMIC rates can be looked up on the INSEE's site (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques). The rates are gross, meaning they indicate the salary before employee's social security contributions or tax are deducted. It is a criminal offence to pay an employee at a rate below the SMIC.
The main types of employment contracts are:
In all cases, the employee is entitled to five weeks' paid vacation per year. If the employee does not use these days, a supplement of 10% of the salary must be paid instead. It is customary in France for the employee to take all his or hers vacation entitlement or be paid for it.
There are endless complications, exceptions and exonerations for employing staff, and they regularly change. UCANSS wrote a 174-page quick reference guide in 2006 to outline the essential provisions for employers, but it would be out of date by now.
Business & Product Categories
If you start a business in France, you need to find out which category - or categories, if you have more than one activity or product - best describe your activities and products.
NAF codes describe the activities. The same business can have several different activities, unless specific regulations rule it out. The NAF codes have statistical purposes and do not mean that a business is limited to the NAF code chosen. The APE (Activité Principale Exercée) code for a business is the NAF code that describes the business' main activity, mostly measured by turnover. If a same business has more than one establishment, one distinguishes the APEN code for the business as a whole and the APET codes for each establishment.
Product categories are described by the CPF codes.
NAF codes (Nomenclature d'Activités Française). Business categories.
CPF codes (Classification des Produits Française). Product categories.
How long to keep business documents. A business or self-employed person is obliged to keep different types of documents for various lengths of time as a minimum. The government site Service-Public.fr tells you how long. Click here for the rules for private documents.
Business & Association information sites
Government site for declaring yourself auto-entrepreneur. Don't set up your
auto-entrepreneur business anywhere else.
Protecting your trademark
INPI. Institut National de la
Propriété Industrielle. Protection and registration of French trademarks.
Accounting, financial and fiscal matters
Financing your business
OSEO. Government scheme
to help financing businesses.
Merchant accounts, payment solutions
Seasoned entrepreneurs are aware of the chargeback risk, but it is not obvious for a beginner. In the EU, any payment provider client (including bank clients) can contest unauthorised payments up to 13 months after they were debited, except for cheques. When that happens, the payment provider may well pass the bill for fraud onto the merchant by debiting the amount refunded to the client. That is known as a chargeback. The danger is that payment solution providers aimed at small businesses often fail to warn less experienced merchants about this risk. The risk description is there if you look for it, but nobody tells you to look for it.
Although mainly disgruntled Paypal clients have contributed with accounts of a vast number of fraud cases and other problems, this does not mean that such problems are limited to Paypal. The chargeback risk applies for all payment solutions, unless the payment solution provider specifically agrees to cover the chargeback risk against a more or less modest fee.
Paypalwarning. Paypal clients tell about their bad experiences.
Google Checkout and Amazon Payments are not presently (August 2011) available to businesses in France.
VAT reclaim agencies
Recovering VAT paid in another Member State can be a bureaucratic nightmare. An agency can help avoiding mistakes and avoid days of legal research and translation.
Debt recovery agencies, Credit risk management
Fichier National des Incidents
Business creation procedures and information
APCE (Agence Pour la Création d'Entreprises). Help and info for starting a business. Official site.
Official sites for actually creating a business
Official site: one-stop-shop for creating a business.
Warning: some companies have set up web sites to trick entrepreneurs into paying them for setting up as auto-entrepreneur. There is no fee for doing this on the official site Lautoentrepreneur.fr. That site should be the only one used for setting up your business. If you want to pay for assistance, be sure the services offered have real value.
About social security contributions
WARNING: Starting a business in France can be bad for your health. It's not a joke.
If you start a business in France, be prepared for the shock of having to pay around 45% of your profit in social charges (for auto-entrepreneurs, it is a percentage of turnover). Unless you have chosen the auto-entrepreneur scheme, you will have to manage nearly ten different charges, such as family allowances, health and maternity care, deductible general social contributions, non-deductible general social contributions, refund of the national debt, basic pension, complementary pension, professional education, each calculated in its own way.
Except for the first two years, these charges are based on your result two years ago. If your result changes a lot from one year to another, the social charges can fluctuate dangerously.
If your profits increase quickly, you underpay during two years until they catch up with your increased revenue, and they will then claim, during the same year, increased charges for the current year and additional payments to adjust for the previous two years. The result is that you may end up having to pay nearly three years' charges during one year. If you are not managing these charges carefully and putting money aside for future payments, they may end up making your business go bankrupt. This is the most common cause of business failures in France.
If your profits decrease drastically, they will continue to claim social charges based on your good period two years ago. This means that the social charges due for the current year may exceed your revenue. The surplus will be refunded two years later, but that doesn't help if there is a liquidity problem. This is another cause of bankruptcy. A law change from 2005 addressed this problem and made it possible to ask for the provisional charges to be reduced and based on the business's own predictions. However, it is not a right to have it recalculated, so in theory the request can be refused. Also, the authorities are very slow when it comes to replying to and enacting such requests. The law change doesn't apply for liberal professions' pension contributions, and they alone have the potential to exceed the entire revenue.
During the first two years, you are supposed to provide advance payments that presume a certain profit. Even if you earn much less, you still have to pay.
Not only is the system for social charges inhumanly complex, it is regularly adjusted, and the public services appointed for administering them and collecting money, the RSI and the URSSAF, are a pathetic shambles. They often send out wildly exaggerated bills for social charges. They lose mail sent to them. They forget to apply reductions one may qualify for. They commonly lose payments made to them, or they forget to register them, so they keep sending out reminders for social charges already paid or not due, and after a few weeks they send out bailiffs to collect payments already made but not registered, or payments not due. I have been told by a person who actually visited an URSSAF office that they had an office full of unopened mail.
People who have been fighting with unfair treatment by the URSSAF or the RSI for many years often complain of resulting health and stress problems. Think twice before starting a business in France.
Americans should note that "social security" in Europe refers to a wide range of services including healthcare, old-age pension, family allowances and more.
revenue online for calculation of social security contributions.
Other Official Business Sites
French government portal for businesses.
Investinprovence. Marseille-Provence Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Bouches du Rhône conseil général's (~county council) English-language portal for partnership with foreign businesses investing in Provence.
B2B Business Directories, Providers
See also Office Equipment & Stationery.
Pagesjaunes. Yellow pages. When you sign up for a business phone or Internet subscription, it usually includes the right to one free business listing in the Yellow Pages, including a web site and e-mail address. If you don't want you fax spammed, don't list it. Technically, your phone company or ISP will add your business to the annuaire universelle. The Yellow Pages and other directories should then pick it up automatically. If they don't, you may need to call the Yellow Pages on 0810 810 767 ('local rate' number).
yellow pages. Paid inclusion only.
Trade Specific Sites
ARAPL. Associations Régionales Agréées de l’Union des Professions Libérales.
Business Press, News
01net. IT magazine.
Press release sites
Business Community & Network Sites
Interprofessionnelle de Formation des Professionnels Libéraux.
Other Business Sites
Self-employed, freelancers or other contractors looking for work: please refer to the listings of job and contract sites to look for contracts.
Ask legal business questions online. A service from Telexper.
Information for foreign businesses wanting to create businesses or invest in
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