Tied to France by language of commerce

'At the recent Ambition France event in Cork, Enterprise Ireland brought together current and future Irish exporters to learn how to unlock the potential of doing and growing business in France' (stock photo)

Sinead Lonergan

It's one of our nearest neighbours, one of Europe's most stable economies, and is a key world player in agriculture, medtech, luxury goods, and the automotive and aerospace sectors. But despite a €2.5trn economy and consistent growth, France may often be overlooked as an export market by Irish firms. And the reason may be deceptively basic: language.

It is no secret that France is proud, like Ireland, of its identity and fiercely protective of its native tongue. But Irish exporters should not ignore the opportunities on their doorstep when it comes to diversifying their market exposure.

Our shared language sees Irish firms at ease with UK and US markets, and growth of Irish exports to the English-language-friendly Benelux region is high. Yet there are lucrative opportunities in the French supply chain for Irish firms with the right savoir faire. While entry to the market will require a working knowledge of the country's mother tongue, the French more than understand the universal language of commerce.

However, it's important for Irish firms to remember that French business culture is formal, hierarchical and bound by strict rules. These are traits that are compatible with our own flexible and open work ethos driven by our export culture. However, the Irish reputation for innovation and adaptability is what makes our businesses attractive.

At the recent Ambition France event in Cork, Enterprise Ireland brought together current and future Irish exporters to learn how to unlock the potential of doing and growing business in France.

Exports to France from some 349 Enterprise Ireland client companies are enjoying a period of sustained growth.

Total exports to France were above €1bn in 2018, a 9pc annual increase, and they currently account for just over a fifth of all Enterprise Ireland client exports to the eurozone.

To observers of the region, the growth is not surprising. France's economy may not be as dynamic as the Irish market, but slow growth is growth nonetheless - and steady.

As the world's seventh-largest economy, its scale and breadth of diversification mean it can weather internal and external shocks, as shown during the global crash.

The market opportunities include agriculture, food and agri-tech, where France sits as the world's sixth-largest producer within the agri-food sector. In telecoms, a €20bn plan for 100pc

high-speed broadband is set for completion by 2022 and it already has more than 23 million Wi-Fi hotspots. It is the world's number-one tourist destination, generating €160bn in revenue.

It is the second-largest importer of medical devices, servicing 75pc of its internal market, while in pharmaceuticals, it is home to Sanofi, one of the world's leading pharma companies, and is a core base for multinationals such as Pfizer.

But entry to the French market is not without its challenges. Linguistic issues are readily solvable through translation and key hires of native French speakers.

Enterprise Ireland's GradStart programme can assist on this front, part-funding salaries of individual graduates with a language qualification in the key market.

However, one of the biggest challenges to making an entry into the French market has always been, according to the Ambition France event's keynote speakers, one thing - red tape. French business culture is defined by its meticulous bureaucracy that places high value on accuracy, compliance and detail, which may confuse first-time exporters.

"No doesn't always mean no," Nicola-Marie O'Donovan, senior agile coach from BlaBlaCar, told Ambition France delegates. "It will likely be the start of a conversation. In Ireland, we tend to say yes too quickly. In France, an argument is usually the precursor to a discussion."

"It can seem bewildering," Michael Stack, managing director of Tricel, the Killarney-based composites manufacturer, told the conference.

"But the rules are applied fairly and squarely. No one is trading within our market outside of the regulatory system. It's not just a rules-based country; it's a rules-based country where rules are enforced. And that makes it fair for everyone."

This is good news for Irish firms worried about market access. Your market research and market validation are likely to be rewarded with one of the most loyal supply chains in the eurozone, ensuring you too can enjoy the fruits of the slow and steady economy of Europe.

Sinead Lonergan, Enterprise Ireland overseas manager, is based in Paris