Thinking of setting up a business in France? Here’s where to look for help

Thinking of setting up a business in France? Here's where to look for help
Photo: AFP
Starting your own new business in France can be a stressful affair - but you don't have to be on your own, as one British entrepreneur explained.

With administrative hoops to jump through and rules to follow from the outset, while you’re also trying to ensure you keep your new business afloat so you can keep a roof over your family’s head and put food on the table, starting out can be tough in France.

Then there are the different business regimes, ranging from the sole trader micro entrepreneur regime – still sometimes referred to, confusingly, as auto entrepreneur – through to the société à responsabilité limitée (SARL) and beyond.

It can seem, as many things in France often do, a bureaucratic minefield that only the bravest would dare cross. And, yet, thousands of people – French and foreign – decide every year to set up their own businesses, despite not necessarily knowing the system.

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“My oldest is 20,” said April Higginson, who set up industrial equipment supplier and manufacturer Maxima with her husband when they moved to Sarlat in the Dordogne from the Midlands in England 14 years ago. “The amount of stuff that he takes for granted, that he knows – because he’s been brought up with it – is incredible. 

“We have had to learn that.” 

All sorts of advice and opinions are freely available on internet forums – and while useful they may not always be accurate. But one place that can help is the local Chambre des Metiers, a kind of small business forum.

April hopes to be involved with the Chambres des Metiers in her home of Dordogne from October 2021, following an election process. The current president has asked her to join his ticket for the ballot.

“He wants the team to be represented by 50 percent men and 50 percent women,” she said. “I think around a third of businesses are owned by women – so for women in business that’s a great thing.

“He also wanted to reflect the number of foreign nationals who live in Dordogne – who are serious business people, opening businesses in France. They need to be supported and recognised.”

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When April and husband Max decided to set up Maxima, which manufactures and supplies all sorts of accessories for diggers, help for new business owners was much harder to obtain.

She explained part of the Chambres des Metiers’ president’s mission, if he wins another term, is to ‘expel that myth that they’re not there to help because they are because they do lots of things, for new businesses and for people who start a business’.

She added: “When we started our business, we had no clue on business law, we had no clue on employment, because everything [in France] is so very, very different. 

“We’ve learned the hard way. And it was hard – it still is. We learn everyday, but that information is much easier to get now you know where to get it. 

“Fourteen years ago we didn’t have the Facebook pages that people have now or social media – that didn’t really exist. There are so many options open for businesses now.”

The most obvious difference, she said, was the changing face of France’s Chambres des Metiers – which is increasingly open, pro-active and welcoming.

“When we started our business, we hadn’t got a clue where to go, who to turn to. My husband was forced onto a course with the Chambres des Metiers – at the time it was run by an external agency – and for a week he sat there being lectured on how awful it would be if he worked on the black and how he couldn’t ever have a holiday because if he did he wouldn’t be contributing to the system. It was ridiculous!

“Other than being scared to death, the one thing that happened was he decided that he didn’t want anything to do with the Chambres des Metiers ever again!”

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Some of the problems were fundamental. “When we arrived, my husband didn’t speak any French. My French was A-level standard – but I hadn’t spoken it for 13 years. 

“So we learned a lot very, very quickly.  And I think as a business owner, if you don’t learn every day, then there’s something wrong.”

Some, however, were cultural. “The pace is a lot slower than we were used to when we initially set up the business.

And some differences were local. “In our area, Perigueux is obviously a very important economic area for Dordogne, as is Bergerac,” April said. “Other towns get dismissed as being too small, or too touristy. That’s one of our challenges here in Sarlat – we are an industrial company in a tourism town. It has its challenges – it took us four years, for example, to find a suitable depot … because it’s a tourist town.”

Six years later after they had set up the business, survived a global recession, and learned many of the ins and outs of French administration, they were contacted again by the local branch.

“When we started the business, we were lucky to have a neighbour who was in business himself,” April said. “So we did ask him for advice. He put us in the direction of his accountant. They helped us with setting up the business and everything. 

“But we had so little guidance in the early days and we fell foul of a few things. And we had to rectify them and make sure it didn’t happen again.”

It’s quite a common problem. People who don’t know what questions to ask don’t always get the information they need.

“One of the things that we fell foul of was customs,” April said.  “We were importing things from the UK and we had no idea. Even though it was within Europe at the time, we still had to do a customs declaration every month. It was something that was so simple to do, but we didn’t know.”

A grant from the local Chamber also helped cover part of the cost of machinery they were investing in and the Chamber also helped April and Max set up health and safety protocols for their staff and allowed them access to a range of training courses.

“I’ve been on courses for growing our business, courses for understanding how to read company accounts – and you can go on courses to increase your awareness of social media. 

“It’s endless, to be honest, and we just had no idea. I went on the website the other day and  saw that they’re running a course on how to put in place a CE mark. 

“We’re developing our own products, and we will need to have a CE marks. Otherwise, I’d be having to go to an agent to do that – and we’re talking five grand before you even start. 

“When those doors open for you, you actually realise just how much is there and how much is on offer. And in the last few years, it’s changed so much.”

“One thing that I would say to anybody who’s starting a new business is, go for it, basically. But getting your business set up right in the first place is really important. 

“They do a preparatory course now, at the Chambres des Metiers, so you can go on a course before you even started and learn what you need to know, before you start.”

You can find more about your local Chambre de Métiers – known in some areas as Chambre des Métiers et de l’Artisanat – here.

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