Since the French economy is in crisis, small companies are trying to boost their exports to Germany. But it takes time and patience to sell goods to Germans.
Back home in France Olympe Lanzarotti would be starting an internship about now. The 24-year-old just finished her marketing studies. "I belong to a generation which does a lot of internships," she says in fluent German. "You're six months in a company and then a successor takes your place. You're not important."
But Lanzarotti is important to her employer. Her mission is to conquer the German market for the small company Miage, of Lyon. The ten people working in the company produce covers for containers in waste management.The young woman has been trying to find new customers from her office in Cologne since March.
Alexandre Vanpoulle's situation is similar. His employer, Solisysteme, is not much bigger than Lanzarotti's. The 25 employees in the western French city of Poitiers produce bioclimatic pergolas that protect terraces from sun and rain. Alexandre also has an office in Cologne, he also speaks fluent German, and his job is also to boost the company's business in Germany.
"I started at the beginning. Six months months in and I'd found a number of trade partners for our company," he said. "We will see the results next year, because roofs for terraces are only important in spring and summer."
The government helps
Solisysteme and Miage are too small to afford their own branches in Germany. Even proper marketing staff would be too expensive for them. Lanzarotti and Vanpoulle are on a so-called VIE (Volontariat International en Entreprise), an international in-house volunteer service. The French government bears a part of the costs - hoping it will promote French exports.
France and Germany are the two biggest economies in Europe, and they are each others' most important trading partners. But their relation is not equal. For years Germany sells far more goods to France than it buys. Last year the trade surplus amounted to 40 billion euros ($55 billion), more than with any other country in the world.
German companies have an advantage over their French competitors, says Christophe Kühl, a lawyer who counsels companies in both countries. In France there are relatively few large-scale enterprises, but a large number of very small companies with a turnover in the single-figure millions. "Obviously these companies, which often have only five to ten employees, do not export as much as German medium-sized companies with 250 employees and a turnover of 50 million euros a year," said Kühl.
Different business structures
A few years ago, Kühl and a partner founded the Villa France in Cologne to help small companies gain access to the German market. Villa France offers offices, secretary services, and economic and legal advice. The demand is high – partially because the French economy is down and the sales dropping. Villa France alone has some 40 interns who try to find new customers for their companies.
"It is not easy for any of us," said Vanpoulle. "Germany is a very specific country, a country of engineers. It takes a long time to achieve things."
Kühl agrees that technical details and numbers play an important role in Germany, while business relations in France are more personal. "First you have to win over a French person - not with arguments and prices but with your personality and your plans," he said.
Vanpoulle has no problems with the German mentality. "I already told my employer that I won't be coming back to France. I feel good here and I want to stay," he said. If everything works out well, his employer could continue to employ him after the end of the sponsored internship.
Thomas Wolter is another young Frenchman on an export mission in Germany. Until the end of school he lived in Germany, where his father came from. Then he studied in France. Now he works from Cologne for knife manufacturer Opinel, a household name for folding knives in France, which are exported throughout the world.
"It helps that I'm half German. Because of my accent my customers immediately realize that I'm from France and ask me about it," he said. It mostly relaxes the conversation and eases the task of selling a part of France's everyday culture. "It would be best if I visited my customers with a baguette and a bottle of red wine."
But it remains unclear whether Wolter and the other French interns can help to reduce the German trade surplus - especially as Villa France also helps German companies to enter the French market.