Before coming to Paris, not only did I learn the language: I watched the news and read Le Monde regularly to keep up with the current events, I was in constant communication with friends and peers from the French community and I even hired a personal tutor for mock job interviews. I immersed myself in the culture in any possible way I could (eating French food, buying French clothes, going to France or francophone areas for holidays, etc…). I watched video after videos of songs, tutorials, movies and talk shows just to get the “feel” of it. I also researched about the French job market using job-searching sites and other articles I’d find online. I felt great when I aced an interview and got hired for a temporary contract. Until I realized that after having applied to an average of 200 jobs in 4 months, only 2 companies called me for an interview and none of them was French.
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I was lucky enough to have gotten a temporary contract for 5 months, but I had to keep on looking for a job to be able to survive. My son wasn’t born back then, but we had a cat to feed too (He he)! So I kept on searching and while receiving negative replies (some just right out ignored the application), I never stopped working on my CV and cover letter. All the while going through the different stages of applying for a job in Paris…
Stage 1- Wonder
WHATEVER HAVE I DONE WRONG?
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I actually asked people about this: I asked a friend who has been living for 8 years in Paris, a Senior Head Hunter, a Senior HR Officer at my past workplace and one of my husband’s French buddies. Here’s what they had to say:
My friend who’s been living for 8 years in Paris (age: early 30s)
(According to her experience) The French hiring system is very protective of their own. Among a roster of candidates, usually they would get CVs of people who graduated from French universities*. And by chance, if a non-French candidate with a degree from a non-French university is considered for the job, more often than not this non-French candidate would be offered a different salary (read: lower) than the French ones**. Finally, if a non-French candidate is lucky enough to get hired, this person can only get promoted as far as company policies allow***. That is to say that for foreign employees with degrees from outside of France, there’s a limit to where they could go up the company ladder (again, this means a lower scale compared to the French). She used to work in a consulting firm.
*Especially those who graduated from the grands écoles.
**According to her, there was actually a published sheet of salary equivalance for each “type” of employee.
***Just like with the salaries, her company also showed her a published sheet about this.
Senior Head Hunter from a known agency (age: mid-40s)
Considering that I asked her last year (2015), her answer was plain and simple- it’s the crisis that’s hindering French companies to hire as much as they used to. I just had lunch with her not long ago and she says 2016 must be a better year for hiring. But she didn’t say for whom. *snicker*
Senior HR Officer from my past work (age: early 30s)
The French hiring system is very protective of their own (repetition intended). There is a general belief that if you hold a degree from a good French university, you must be without a doubt someone who is “performant”. Foreigners have it tough if they want to apply in a French firm, but international firms based in France are more open to a wider variety of suitable candidates. It has been like this since she can remember and she doesn’t foresee any change soon. She’s half-French and is currently out of job.
My husband’s French buddy (age: late 30s)
The French hiring system is very strict and recruiters filter candidates’ CVs according to where they got which degree. It’s easier for them to hire like this because a good French university is known for producing quality graduates. They’re not fond of taking any chances.
Current research is being made on the subject of the French labor market and its rigidity. Please standby for a related post!
Stage 2- Annoyance
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DID I NOT MAKE ENOUGH RESEARCH?
WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN ME ABOUT THIS?
DID I NOT TALK TO FRENCH PEOPLE BEFORE COMING TO FRANCE?
WHY WAS I NOT BRIEFED ABOUT THIS?
Stage 3- Frustration
This is an understatement. I truly felt my heart break when I learned about all these things and I realized I can never compete with a French diploma. No offense to my alma mater, but let’s be realistic here… la Sorbonne vs la Complutense? *insert ironic laughter*
Stage 4- Discouragement
I entered into a state of depression for some months. I was getting sick all the time and all I wanted to do was go back to Spain, to my old job- to my old life! The feeling of uselessness and helplessness were everyday companions for me. And I was not used to having them around all the time.
Stage 5- Acceptance
After some time, I learned to accept that this is just how things are right now. And although there are moments when I give in to the temptation of regretting my decision to live here, there isn’t much I can do about it, is there? I am here, so I might as well take every oppportunity I have to live and learn.
By gaining hindsight, I was able to re-think the questions I had asked myself during the Annoyance Stage. I made the best research (and soul-search) that I could about them and here’s what I found out:
DID I NOT MAKE ENOUGH RESEARCH? Clearly, the answer is NO. On the one hand, I was not interviewed for half of the jobs I applied to because they neither fit my educational background nor my professional experience no matter how much I tweaked my CV. The French hiring system is very rigid and it really adheres to the principle that the candidate for a post must have been trained for that purpose. Meaning, a Marketing graduate with experience in advertising will not be interviewed for a post as Office Manager. Furthermore, applicants for internships must be students. My husband was accepted as an intern in Paris 5 years ago because he applied as a student, even if he was enrolled in his university in Madrid. (Yes, I admit I also applied for internships!)
On the other hand, for those jobs fitting my qualifications… I just embraced the reality that there is so much competition, my CV didn’t even stand the first elimination round. This would explain why my friend helped me structure my cover letter so much that it covered the job description point by point (see my post: The “ray” in Gray”). It’s important to make the recruiter see that you can do all that they need for the job post.
WHY DIDN’T ANYONE WARN ME ABOUT THIS? Of course, I was referring to the French people I’ve talked to ranging from my private tutor to our friends and acquaintances. For this one, I believe the answer would be that some things seem so obvious to some people, they find it impossible for you not to see it. I mean, it is their system after all and they’ve lived their whole lives knowing these facts. For them it simply turned out to be within the realm of “common sense”.
I can imagine them thinking, “Who would not tweak their CV and cover letter to respond to the needs of the job post from start to finish?” or “What type of a professional in his right mind would apply for an internship post?”.
DID I NOT TALK TO FRENCH PEOPLE BEFORE COMING TO FRANCE? Yes, I did. I just talked a lot more about other things and left some-sigh!- essential topics behind.
WHY WAS I NOT BRIEFED ABOUT THIS? The answer is simple: I did not ask the right questions. I simply assumed things would be just as I know and just as I imagined they would work.
Stage 6- Action
When I was finally able to answer my questions and calm myself down, I decided it’s time for action. The second step I took was to improve my French. I realized I wasn’t going to land on my dream job any time soon, so I applied as an administrative in the same company that hired me for 5 months. I was shifted to another department and I changed status from cadre (equivalent to manager) to agent de maîtrise. (It meant lower salary, lower level of responsibility, but strictly 35 1/2 hours of work per week! An hour more of work meant an hour more of pay.)
It was the most difficult transition I’ve ever experienced but then I was “rewarded” with an excellent Operations Manager. She speaks English but her French is so good that even the French people themselves acknowledge it! I learned so much on how to communicate (from colleagues of our level to directors and exclusive clients), I truly improved my ability to write emails and even if each day ended with my head as swollen as a balloon, now I could proudly say that I have “Full Professional Proficiency” in French. Ha!
Eventually, I landed on a Research Assistant job in the same company (yes, ladies and gentlemen- 3 different contracts in 20 months). By the time I was settling in to the new job, I was already warmly welcomed and genuinely at ease with the rest of the team who where mainly French. They saw how hard I tried to communicate in their language and in return, they showed me great consideration and understanding. They were very protective of my interest and well-being, they would give me all sorts of advice (especially when I got pregnant with my son) and they never shut their doors anytime I needed someone to talk to.
I still feel a tiny pinch in my heart whenever I think about some of my rejected applications. Mostly because in some of them, I discovered they actually preferred someone who has a French degree even if experience-wise perhaps we were equals. But that’s okay. I really live by the saying, “It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey that counts”.
Greatest lesson learned on transferring to Paris:
Make sure you have a job before buying your plane (or train) ticket.
Please refer to the post, “To see is to (dis)believe” for further discussion on looking for a job in Paris. Thanks!