Using French networks for business initiation

Long before the word network became commonplace in connection with social networks, les réseaux was an everyday expression in France ‒ in social life, in the economy or in business. Its meaning can be traced back to life at the French court where personal networks enabled communication between the center of power and the distant provinces.

People are bearers of information

Information and decisions were filtered, passed on or implemented ‒ or sometimes not ‒ by people ‒ the representatives of the aristocratic families at court and in the regions they came from. Who received which information how quickly, or demanded or refused its transfer was of great importance ‒ just as it is now in the global market place.

People were bearers of information. The quality of their networks guaranteed the forwarding of information. After the French Revolution, the young secular republic organized new networks. The Catholic and aristocratic opposition organized itself, sometimes underground, into a system of connected groups. This meant you could only trust those you knew really well.

Of course things are different today, but the social structures and practices remain: the membership of a network determines the access both to the central instances of power and their counter powers (contre-pouvoir).

There are Networks for the Alumni organizations of the universities, professional groups, the Catholic Church, political parties or organizations, clubs (Rotary, Lions etc.) as well as Freemason lodges and many others.

Personal references are key

All this means that personal references are very important for proper business contacts. Your first contact with potential partners is more likely to be successful if someone else establishes a connection for you. Then you can say ›Mrs./Mr. X recommended that I get in touch with you because …‹

An example: at the end of an internal training session, a French training provider asks the participants the following question on a feedback sheet:

›Which of your colleagues or friends can we contact so that we can show them our training programme? Please give an e-mail address and a telephone number!‹

In other countries it would be inacceptable to ›abuse‹ the seminar participants in this way for marketing purposes. This is not seen as a problem in France.

An attempt to contact someone by telephone or e-mail without any references or without a personal meeting in the hope of setting up a business contact is doomed to failure – unless you have a very unusual solution to offer and know how to communicate this in an attractive way.

Give and take

There are Networks all over France, both casual personal/private and highly organized ones. They offer access to resources and information, and they structure relationships and knowledge. Sometimes they are reserved for a few insiders and are almost secret, but often they are open and public.

They can be aimed at the needs of individuals or the well-being of many. In the middle term, a network serves all members best if give and take are as balanced as possible. Someone who does not use the network drops out of these dynamics. As in a power circuit, all relays and crosspoints should remain active so that energy can flow. In a human network, a participant’s activities should go in various directions, from one contact to another. The more active a member of a network is, the more central his position becomes.

Each of your French business partners has many points of reference in various networks. If you want to distribute positive information and if you have looked after your contact well, you can ask him or her to act as a multiplier. If, however, something went wrong in your contact with a French company then you have to face the fact that it will be difficult to gain a foothold again in the relevant network.

Alumni-Organizations in the Grandes Écoles

An example of networks which can be of great importance in French business life are the Alumni organizations of the Grandes Écoles. Each of these elite universities maintains an exact register of its graduates. This is not just a list of addresses, but a structured register which is brought up to date each year.

The entries are extremely detailed: they contain not only name and place of work but also complete professional and private contact data. Of course all information is given voluntarily and only graduates of each university have access.

Such a graduate register serves various purposes, from the search for a placement to sophisticated cooperation between companies or support in a special assignment for which certain people, both in one’s own company and in other organizations, might be useful. As graduates from the Grandes Écoles have careers both in the private sector of the economy and in the upper grades of the civil service, the Alumni networks strengthen social cohesion. Potential abuse is regulated by social control which is part of a human network. The person who abuses the system is excluded by the others.

For your business contacts in France, this means that you should find out, for example, which Grande École your new contact attended and you should then check whether you know others who attended the same university. If this is so, you could casually ask:

“Do you happen to know Mrs. X, she also attended Grande École XY? Her company is one of our good customers!”

Then you are in the network, or at least in the ›foyer‹ of the network. If you know someone privately who is a member of an Alumni organization, you should not keep this to yourself. On the contrary. In France there is nothing wrong in mixing personal and job-related contacts.

Isabelle Demangeat

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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