The French Year Abroad: A Before-You-Go Guide

In less than a week, I’m moving to Paris for a year as part of an obligatory third year abroad for my degree. I’m pretty terrified. I was never homesick going to Uni, used to living in busy cities my whole life, but Paris? Unfriendly, bureaucratic, expensive? The nerves began months ago, sat in a scary University lecture being told the 38732083 things we needed to prepare before going. I’ve written this little guide of things to do in the months before you make the big move as it’s something I wished that I’d had when I was doing my planning.

The best thing to do is to do everything early and accept that it will be difficult. Prepare to painstakingly send and write hundreds of covering letters, trawling through thousands of apartment listings. But I’m sure it will all be worth it – and here’s my guide to making you feel a little more prepared.

  1. Decide early on whether you want to do  work placement, British council teaching assistantship or study abroad.

Knowing which of the three to choose is  tricky choice, but I ended up choosing the work placement. Warning – this is the most difficult to sort out and stressful to get (of course, I chose the most complicated option). Here’s a quick pro/con list, though, of your options:

Work placement

Pros:

Excellent experience working in a company that will look great on your CV, giving you a leg up when job-searching after you graduate

Will often be forced to speak French all day with French colleagues and clients

Given a taste of the real world; a routine

Cons:

The pay can be bad: interns only obliged to be paid a third of the French minimum wage

Could be difficult to make friends, especially ones your own age

Long hours monday – friday with (usually) unpaid holiday

Very difficult to find a placement in the first place

 

British council assistantship

Pros:

Good pay with little hours a week, so you have a lot of free time (+ academic holidays)

Free time to pick up part-time work

Also looks great on your CV, especially if you want to go into teaching

Cons:

Less of an opportunity to practise your French as you speak English most of the day

You can choose which region to be in, but cannot choose specific cities and areas (you might get placed in the middle of nowhere or rough areas)

May be less sociable (depending on teacher co-workers)

Stuck in same place; with work experience you can split year between two destinations

 

Study Abroad

Pros:

Most likely to make new like-minded friends and have a great social life

Usually will have a lot of free time

Experience a different academic experience than England’s

Cons:

Not really trying something new / not having a break from studying

You may not get your first choice and be placed at a University you didn’t want to go to

Not getting paid or earning money

 

There are obviously many more pros and cons for all three, but those are the basics. I opted for work placements pretty early on – and yes, it’s a lot of work. Here’s how I managed to secure two six-month placements in Paris.

2. Applying for an Internship in France

There are two things that you need to apply to internships in France: a French CV and a lettre de motivation (covering letter).

The French CV is quite different in many ways to the English one – it isn’t just a matter of translating your English one. Firstly, it’s expected that you include a photo of yourself, passport style (which I find bizarre, but hey ho). You also need to include fairly sensitive personal information about yourself: your full name, address, phone number, email, nationality, age, and marital status.

You then need your formation (education and qualifications) in reverse chronological order. Beware – you can’t just write ‘A – Level,’ because the French won’t really know what that means. Make sure you suggest what the French equivalent would be: for example, here’s what my CV looks like:

cv blog

You should also include which languages you speak and your proficiency in them using the European language levels (CEFR). The levels range from A1 (basic) through to A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 (fluent). Our university suggested that we should put our level of French level as B2, the expected level after two years of university study. However, you will later take a language assessment test which will tell you your individual level later (I’ll discuss this later). So for me, this section of my CV looked like this:

cv blog

All you really need after this are your work experience (expérience professionnelle) and what you do in your free time (activités extra-professionnelles). Try to avoid lots of description – simple is best.

Now that you have your CV, you  need your lettre de motivation (covering letter). Although having a base template is fine, it’s absolutely crucial that you tailor each one to the job you’re applying for; it’s so obvious when you just change the company name and that’s it. French covering letters also follow certain rules:

  • Your name and address go on the top left hand corner
  • The person you are addressing and their address go below that in the right hand corner
  • The place and date goes below that on the right in the following format (e.g): Leeds, le 17 février 2017
  • Below that on the left, you then put the Objet (i.e. the subject of the letter)
  • Below that, you should list your pièce jointes (your attached documents)
  • Finally, below that you address the person to whom you are speaking; never use ‘dear’ (chère) – this is not seen as professional. To be safe, simply use Madame/Monsieur.

Example:

cv blog2

Your first paragraph should explain exactly why you’re writing to them today. This short chunk can stay the same for each application.

cvblog3

From here, though, your lettre de motivation needs to be personalised towards the company and the position. Show that you’ve done your research; what exactly does the company do and why does that interest you/what can you contribute? What skills do you have that you want to extend upon/ think are relevant? How does your work experience make you well equipped for the advertised position? If you are sending a candidature spontanée (speculative application where the company isn’t actually advertising a job for an intern), make sure you say clearly what you wish to do and achieve for the company. Some useful phrases to use are listed here.

When ending your letter, you need to use a formule de politesse; you can’t just say best regards and sign off. Although it might seem ultra-formal and silly, it’s a necessity in France. Examples of formules are:

• « Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées. »
• « Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués. »
• « Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’expression de mes meilleurs sentiments. »
• « Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l’expression de ma considération distinguée. »
• « Je vous prie de croire, Madame, Monsieur, à l’expression de mes sentiments distingués. »
• « Je vous prie de croire, Madame, Monsieur, à ma considération distinguée. »
• « Je reste à votre disposition pour convenir d’un rendez-vous afin de vous démontrer ma motivation lors d’un entretien. »
• « Si mon profil vous intéresse, rencontrons-nous. Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, Monsieur, mes respectueuses salutations. »

So you have your CV and covering letter – what next?

This is probably the hardest part – actually knowing where and how to apply. At my University, there was a dashboard where the year abroad coordinator would post job adverts that they found. These were good because they often were searching for English year abroad students and had hired students from the University before. However these were few and far between, and you definitely needed to find the majority of places by yourself. I made good use of the website indeed.fr, but for the most part just researched all the companies that existed in France and looked to see if they were advertising for interns, and if not, sent them a speculative application. This may not be the most effective way to do things, but you need to send out as many applications as possible. I sent out over 100 individual applications, and less than ten replied. Out of those, I was offered places by three. The French don’t like responding to emails, evidently. The amount of people applying for these internships is staggering and you’re not just competing with English students but people living in France as well. If you’re lucky enough to have contacts in France, USE THEM. The people who got placements stress-free, where people who had family or friends in France. Here, you can see some companies that either I applied to or my University advertised for:

Alphatrad, Babylangues, Benefit, Dior, Converse, Dorothy Danahy, Digimind, eBay, Editions Larousse, Eurordis, FaberNovel, Groupe Altice Media, Language Connexion, Le Figaro, Aufeminin, Franco-British Chamber of Commerce, L’internaut, Marie Claire, Mars, Mome Sweet Mome, Mondo Agit, OneFineStay, Pili Pop, Screenrush, Technicis, The Local, LaGardere, Easyvoyage, Atos, Barilla, Bobino, WineSitting, La Belle Assiette, Deliveroo, MakeMeReach, Dailymotion, Elle, Fabernovel, Varenne Media, Forbes, Radio VL, Silex ID, LVMH, Kenzo, Les Petits Bilingues, Disney, idinvest, Nike, Babbler, City Safe, Time Out Paris, Unruly Media, Eurocommercial Properties, Fleishman Hillard, Groupe Essca, HSBC, Ville de Lille, Transatel, Air France, Esiee Amiens, Meetrip, Madame Vacances, Hays, Burston-Marsteller, Harris Interactive, Jitrois, Loewe, Paris Modes, Credit Agricole, Telecoms sans frontieres, ESC pau, Coca-cola, Kantar Health, 2isa, SAFT, C&A France, Cap Ulysse, EADS, Kienbaum, Vingt Paris, Lemaitre Publishing, Les Langues du Monde, HEC Paris, L’Agence Francaise, TNA Formations, Pebbles Agency, MyBestPro, Wengo, WSN Development, Danone, Safran, Langues et Conseils, Les Pensieres, Langue et Nature, Dolce la Hulpe.

Also: beware the weird multitude of websites that try and make you pay for an internship.

When I had interviews, they mainly took place over Skype – and although it will obviously vary, they all lasted around 45 minutes and were usually entirely in French. Yes, this sounds terrifying and it is terrifying, but honestly, if they’re kind they will know that you’re still learning and won’t talk at the usual 100mph.

In France, you can’t sign a contract for an internship longer than six months, so you’ll either sign two contracts at one company or do two different internships. You have to do at least 9 months worth of internship. The pay obviously varies, but most internships (unless you’re lucky) will pay you as little as possible – usually between 500 and 700 euros per month. They are, however, obliged to pay for half of your navigo card (Paris’ version of the Oyster card) which means you have unlimited transport for only 35 euros instead of 70 euros. They mostly also pay for 50% of ‘restaurant tickets’ – 8 euro lunch tickets accepted at most food places that will only cost you 4 euros.

In most cases, if you work in Paris your salary won’t even cover your rent (oh, the joys of Paris housing). However, everyone is entitled to the Erasmus grant.

3. The Erasmus grant

The Erasmus grant is offered to everyone doing their year abroad work placement in France and it works out to around 430 euros per month that you don’t have to pay back. You won’t receive it monthly though; confusingly, they give you 70% of it at the start of your placement and the remaining 30% at the end of your placement. If you’re doing two internships then, you’ll get four installments throughout your year abroad.

It is such a bureaucratic, long procedure that involves far too much paperwork and stress, but it’s important you apply properly or you won’t get it – your University will most likely set their own internal deadlines to make sure everything gets done. In order to get the grant, you also need to complete an online language test that takes about 45 minutes – it wants to see your current language level and will ask you to do the test again at the end of the year abroad. You’ll need to send off the final bits of paperwork in the first few days of your internship starting to get all the relevant signatures.

4. Finding a flat

This is notoriously difficult, especially in Paris, where the majority of people undertaking work placements will be situated. If you want to live within the périphérique of Paris, prepared to spend 650-900 euros per month on rent. Some suggests waiting until you get to Paris before finding a flat, but personally I would find this way too stressful. Here are some of the websites that I looked at when searching:

roomlala, appartager, macoloc.fr, e-colocation.fr, paristay, paris-housing, spotahome, book-a-flat, paris attitude, central paris rentals, lodgis, erasmusu, airbnb

I ended up using Lodgis, who were great. It’s all in English with bilingual staff and the website is really easy to navigate. However, going through an agency means agency fees. Me and my roommate are also having to pay a bizarre 3000 euro security deposit.

You can obviously just rent a room in an apartment, but then you obviously may get unlucky with flatmates. There are also student-type cheaper accommodations but they have really strict, strange rules that charge you to have visitors etc. Just be prepared to face crazy bureaucracy – they’ll want all sorts of info, from your tax returns and last payslips to your passport and guarantor details.

It’s obviously better to go and view flats, but if this isn’t possible, you’ll just like to wing it like I have (let’s hope I don’t turn up to a rat invested cave).

That’s all the advice I can give for someone who hasn’t actually gone on their year abroad yet! Hopefully I’ll make another post again in about a month when I’ve experienced the joys of trying to open a French bank account, sort out CAF and various other things…

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