Things about France that surprised me: ability of the French to debate anything, anytime, anywhere

Did anyone ever tell you that running effective meetings in France was a little like herding cats? No? Well, take it from me, now you know.

With France being a time-flexible culture, be prepared for meetings to start 10-15 minutes late and run over by at least as much. Perhaps you expect meetings to serve as a forum to talk to specific, pre-defined points on an agenda in order to reach a firm decision or agree on a clear plan of action. You’re going to leave those expectations at the door – they don’t belong here!

What you’re likely to experience is that wonderful French passion for debate, discussion and intellectual challenge. The meeting agenda, if it even exists, can (and will) get hijacked at any moment. And boy can that discussion heat up, often with everyone talking at once. It’s a nightmare if, like me, you’re the minute taker!

Where does this come from?

Students in the French school system are taught to disagree openly (thèse, anti-thèse, synthèse) and hence the French intuitively follow a similar pattern in any meeting. Conflict and confrontation are seen as a way to deconstruct an idea, challenge it to the maximum to see how robust it really is (bringing any risks and contradictions to the forefront), ultimately resulting in an even better idea. If it’s your idea in the firing line, remember: it is not YOU who is being attacked, it is the IDEA, so don’t take it personally.

Bear in mind the meeting may end with a simple “et voilà.” No action points. No next steps. No recap of the key decisions taken. Just like that, meeting participants are meant to have understood all of this implicitly.

Also bear in mind that any decision taken in the meeting can change depending on who the boss, or M Le President, meets in the corridor afterwards or during their next pause-café. At the end of the day, it’s the boss who decides, and they may be inclined to pursue their own personal goals after meetings. Voilà, c’est comme ça.

Love of intellectual debate

The French reputation for being intellectuals started in the Middle Ages, when Paris was the European centre for education, and it continued into the oh-so-cool philosophers and writers of the 1950s and ’60s. But the idea is still very present today. The main reason there is a grain of truth to this French stereotype is that philosophy is a compulsory subject in French schools.

During their final year in secondary school, French students start learning to use their judgment, ask the big questions and study the history of ideas. Descartes, Plato, Sartre and Kant are all part of the curriculum. The philosophy exam is the most feared among students at the Bac  – the French exam students take before going to college  – an indication of just how dedicated France is to encouraging its citizens to think big.

Consequently, the French take “le talk show” very seriously. The clash of ideas has been part of France’s national identity for centuries, and the intellectual  – almost anyone with an air of gravitas and the confidence to opine on any subject in three points  – enjoys a special status in society and a place of prominence on television. One of my favourites is “Match of ze Day.” In fact I love the very knowledgeable, thorough discussion and disection of all my favourite sports on French television before, during and after the race or game.