French is the only official language in France. However, there are also several regional languages spoken, mostly by elderly residents. English is widely taught in schools because of its importance in international trade as a “global language”. Consequently, in France most of your counterparts will be able to understand you if you speak English, especially if they are of the younger generation.
As political and economic issues become increasingly international in scope, there is a growing need for Europeans to be competent in foreign languages. A command of French can be an asset to a career in business or international affairs. The business person who can do business with a foreign customer in his or her own language will have an edge. Large and small companies are recognising this as the global market becomes more competitive. A basic competence in French, combined with training in business may open opportunities in France to a variety of small to medium sized enterprises that are active in the European Union
Despite their knowledge of and competence in the English language, the French consider their use of French as a sign of respect for their culture. Therefore, to make your business negotiations easier you should at least try to use some French when dealing with French counterparts. It is helpful at your first meeting with a French-speaking individual, to apologise if you cannot speak French fluently. This creates respect for the French culture and reduces any stigma about potential ignorance.
Many French speakers consider themselves and their language as being under attack by the wide use of international English, therefore if you are able to show willing, it is more important than being a fluent speaker.
For example, if you cannot speak French, preface what you are saying whenever possible with: ‘Excusez-moi, s’il vous plait, de vous deranger, mais je ne parle pas bien francais’ (‘Please excuse me for troubling you, but I do not speak French very well’). This introduction is likely to break the ice and help you to get a response. Do not see it as offensive if people help you by correcting your language – they are being courteous. If your counterpart’s voice rises to a high pitch during discussions, do not be alarmed since the French do like to express their interest in the subject areas being discussed by raising their voice.