01 February 2012

Interning in France

I returned to France about 3 weeks ago, and I hit the ground running.  Work is *insane*.  I hear all this grumbling and panic about the European crisis, and while it is legitimate, people apparently didn't get the memo at my place of employment.  I'm not complaining at all, but this would explain my relative radio silence.

I've never really delved into it here on my blog, but I've been a recruiter in France for 2 years now.  I've worked on missions in Africa and in Europe.  It has had its ups and downs (especially when I worked on the agency side...pure madness) but overall it has been a fantastic learning experience.  But before I became a recruiter, I did several internships in France.  I didn't get them through networking or my school.  I had to roll up my sleeves and get them on my own.  And eventually one of them turned into a full-time, permanent contract complete with work papers.  Ka-CHING!

Now, I figure since I am working almost non-stop, I might as well put my professional expertise to work and write something for those of you who are looking to intern in France or know someone that is.  I can't guarantee results, and everyone's experience is different.  But, if you know how to navigate the system and what to expect, it could make things a whole heck of a lot easier for you. (Disclaimer: I am writing this from an American perspective, as this is where I am more experienced.)

Getting an internship in France...what, like it's hard?

Let's get started, shall we?

Step #1:  Immigration

France is a land of many laws, especially when it comes to foreigners and students.  If you happen to be both a foreigner and a student, then your path to getting an internship just became a whole lot more complicated.  You cannot just show up in France, without a visa, and hope to get an internship.  Unless you want something unpaid, and probably way underappreciated.  You first need a student visa in order to then get an internship.  And in order to get a student visa, you either need to be enrolled in a French school or program of study, or you need to already have an internship.  But fear not!  You have a couple of options.
  • Check with your university's Study Abroad office and see what kind of long-term study abroad options they have available.  If they are willing to support you staying over in France longer to do studies and an internship, then you'll be able to get a visa.
  • Enroll in a French university.  If you are hoping to make a career in France one day, then you should investigate France for your undergraduate or graduate studies.  Many of France's schools are recognized worldwide and even have partnerships with places such as Columbia, LSE, and Georgetown.  And P.S. they are a heck of a lot cheaper than American schools!!!  One thing that I wish that I had done was more research.  Make sure you investigate rankings, because in France, where you go to school follows you YOUR WHOLE LIFE.  You can read more on this here.
Once you have a reason to go to France, you'll get to deal with a new website called CampusFrance.  It is actually a pretty decent site for researching schools.  But this is your first step to applying for a student visa.  Once you have submitted your information, and paid a nice fee, you'll get to apply directly to the French Consulate in your region.  You should give yourself about 90 days for the process, so make sure you leave plenty of time to get that visa in your passport.  For example, did I mention the time when I applied for a French visa 4 months before departing, and because of new laws, my passport sat on a desk collecting dust in my local Consulate for about 2.5 of those?  And then I was late getting to France to start school?  You get my drift...

The fun doesn't stop with the Consulate.  Once you arrive in France, you will need to immediately go to the French Préfecture de Police to get your titre de séjour.  The visa only gets you into the party...the titre de séjour allows you to stay for drinks.  If you are in a French school or an exchange program, there is generally someone who will help you take care of this.  But if you are a loner, like I was, you need to go face the demon itself.  You can have a humorous read about what to expect here.

Step #2:  Make sure you have the time

When you want to have a significant internship experience in France, you often need to make sure you have about 6 months.  This is pretty standard for two reasons.  One, most schools in France build in what is called an année de césure  and then a stage de fin d'études.  The année de césure is a year between your first and last year, where you can do one or two internships that really allow you to apply your learnings.  The stage de fin d'études is the internship you do the last semester of your studies, often while you are working on your thesis.  This is also the one internship that could very likely lead to a job offer.

Second, most interns are treated like entry-level professionals.  They are given real missions and goals to accomplish, and are implicated in some pretty heavy work.  It is very rare to have to go and collect dry cleaning, get a cup of coffee, or do nothing but make copies.  Therefore, you have to be available to get involved in longer projects.  There have been some new laws in France to keep interns from being assigned actual work that a normal employee would have to do, but the length is staying the same.

Americans often run into problems, because we tend to do internships in the summer and then start back to school in the fall.  You'll need to work out with your advisor to make sure you can afford to take this time off from school and get the credits you need to graduate.

Step #3:  Make sure you have a convention de stage

Before you even go into a potential interview, talk to your school and make sure that they are willing to hand over a convention de stage.  A convention de stage is a document in which the company, school, and student outline and agree to internship conditions as well as reasons for termination.  In French schools, and some American schools, this is pretty standard, and they should be prepared to ship one over to the company.  If you are outside this case, then make sure you can have one from your school, otherwise the company will most likely not be able to hire you.

Step #4:  Find your Internship

I want you to close your eyes and really imagine what it is that you want to do when you grow up.  Got it?  No?  Well, in France, you're gonna need to try harder.  The French system tends to segment you off into a professional track way earlier than in the United States.  There is no switching majors 4 times without people questioning your mental health. (I've seen it happen after interviews with French managers).  You really need to have an understanding of what is motivating you to apply for an internship.  And if you want to stay in France to work, you need to really listen to your heart and pick something you like, because once you've done an internship in Finance, it can be hard to find something later in Marketing (unless you go to the very best school in France, and then the French believe that you are a revered creature that is capable of doing *anything*).

So where should you look to find this 6-month professional gem?
  • Company Websites:  A lot of companies publish their internships on their own sites.  L'Oréal, Procter & Gamble, EADS, etc.  It can take a while, but this is generally where you will find great leads.
  • Your School Career Page:  Especially if you are enrolled in a French grande école or a place like the American University in Paris.  Companies will target these schools specifically to find what they consider to be the "best and the brightest," and they may not even publish elsewhere...not even on their own site.
  • American Chamber of Commerce:  Sometimes, companies publish on this site, but they are generally smaller, lesser-known companies.  But, they do target Americans, so this could be your chance to shine.
  • Put your CV on an Internship Site:  Several recruitment companies maintain CV databases online for recruters to pay for and look at interns they think could be interesting. (I used to be one of those suckers...)  Sites like PageTalent (Michael Page) or Kap'Stages tend to be pretty good.
  • Attend school recruitment fairs.  This is more if you are studying in the grandes écoles of France.  Generally, in January or February, recruiters will come to campuses to start looking for interns for the summer/fall intake.  This is a great way to talk about opportunities, as well as make yourself known to the HR teams.  If you make a good impression, we're gonna remember you!
Step #5:  Prepare those CVs et lettres de motivation

While for multinationals, an English CV and cover letter could work, you really should make an effort to have a good French CV and lettre de motivation.  After all, you are in France.  You should try to show off all those mad French skills.  These two documents can be quite different than what we are used to in the United States.
  • In America, you brag.  In France, you beg.  Well, more like verbally genuflect, which is just one notch below begging.  We Americans are used to citing that we're NUMBER ONE.  But you just don't do that here in a cover letter in France.  You cite why you are interested in the internship, what modest qualities you can bring, what you hope to gain, and how you can help the company (again, modest is the word here).  It is not like when we write about how we are so darn good at what we do, and how we were the best in class, and how so many professors feel that we are high potential talent.  You talk about what you have learned, why you dream of working for the company, and you keep it low key.
  • In France, there is a certain language for a cover letter.  In the USA, we learn about formatting more than language when writing a cover letter.  But in France, it is all about the language.  There are key phrases to start the letter and end the letter.  Are you writing to inquire about potential internship opportunities?  Or are you applying to a specific role?  Because those require two different styles as well.  To see some models, check out L'étudiant.
  • CVs in France require different information.  You should mention that you have the right to pursue an internship in France somewhere on your CV.  Otherwise, you'll end up in a heap of papers on someone's desk.  You also should obligatorily mention things like hobbies, languages spoken, and computer skills.  Hobbies help show how "well-rounded" you are outside of your studies, and can even help you score an internship for things like event planning or sports marketing.  Check out a CV model on L'étudiant.

Step #6:  Interview

Félicitations!  Your CV sparked my interest.  I'm going to call you up out of the blue and have an initial chat with you on the phone.  Get. Excited.  If I think you are good, I'm going to bring you in for a face-to-face interview.  Now, you're scared but even more excited.  Put your fear to use and prepare a stellar interview.
  • Research the company.  This should be a no-brainer no matter what country you come from.  You need to understand the company's context in the country, their brands, their goals, their press in France.  I'm not a harsh recruiter, but if I hear you say something about a competitor's brand during an interview and how *we* did an awesome job with the marketing, I'm going to immediately cross you off my list.  French managers love when candidates show that they really understand the company, as any other, so make an effort.
  • Research your language.  Look, you may be a French genius, but you are still not going to know every single term.  I'm not saying prepare a speech, but at least know some of the terminology associated with the work you have done and the work you want to do.  You'll impress the French even more if you know their complicated vocabulary.
  • Understand what you want to do when you grow up.  Remember what I said about the French system being very rigid?  Well for your final internship, you need to prove that this is definitely something you want to do when you grow up.  Otherwise, you're gonna move to the bottom of the list of applicants pretty quickly.  Managers tend to want people who are seriously considering becoming a financial controller or a brand manager.  I'm not saying this is the golden rule, but this tends to be the case.
Hopefully, after all this research and hard work, you'll be offered an internship in France.  Do prepare yourself that nowadays in France, this is no longer a quick track into employment.  With the new Circulaire du 31 mai 2011, Interior Minister Claude Guéant made it pretty clear that he wants to drastically reduce professional immigration.  We've seen many a brilliant foreign student come forward to say that they were denied a work visa following their studies and internship in France due to this directive.  This should by no means discourage you from applying for an internship, because it could really serve you well back in the United States.

Feel prepared?  Great!  Go forth and find yourself the internship of your dreams!

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