France v Europe in the Building Game

It would appear that The French construction industry can’t make up its mind as to what it wants, as this article this morning points out.—le-btp-touche-de-plein-fouet-par-l-32348.php

The bone of contention is the amount of foreign firms and workers coming across the borders of Italy and Spain to work on contracts along the cote d’Azur and a tranche which extends to Paris. Especially the Tours - Bordeaux LGV.

In fact public works contracts are being blamed for this influx. As public works clients require ever lower costs, the temptation is to use labour from these countries where the SMIC (minimum wage)is €640 per month, less than half the French minimum.

So while at the same time as the clients are crying out for lower costs, the building industry and politicians are calling “foul” on disloyal competition from abroad.

It would appear that if a French construction company employs a foreign construction worker in France, then they must pay them at least the French minimum wage. Equally, foreign companies working in France are supposed to apply the French minimum wage. However, given the exceptionally low prices recently, it would appear that the workers are being paid by the companies in their own countries.

Will we be looking at a French veto on foreign companies soon? Who knows its too early to say, but one thing is sure, the industry faces the quandary of cutting cost and allowing free cross border trade or closing ranks and increasing outturn costs. Difficult choice when you have a Spanish client building in France.


it was impossible, they didn't know the difference between a 20cm brick or parpaing and a 37cm monomur block, they had ytong béton celulaire but didn't believe in it either, they just couldn't understand that a block could also insulate and regulate ait humidity etc. I gave up! Yes light year behind Germany is probably more accurate ;-)

Have to insulate the thin monomur bricks with what? The 50s would also be lined I presume, then most people in those buildings would bake alive! Behind Germany becomes understatement, although I can't think of any other appropriate expression right now.

The contradictions are actually stunning. I have been in a car park next to a large site in Bergerac when North African, Eastern European (perhaps Russian, Ukrainanian, Belarussian or... but I can't tell them apart) all came off the site at the end of their working day and asked some who were chatting over a smoke in front of my car to stand aside and let me out. They did not have a clue what I was saying until I used gestures (with a smile) and they stepped aside. Effective communication, pah! Same as the UK with Asian and Eastern Europeans workers on site. OK, so they probably have a foreman who can relay on instructions, but...

Only site of any size hereabouts has a Spanish company's sign up already before work starts. Last one I saw like that there were shipments of Spanish materials arriving too. The French brickies, Nick, have nowhere to go because a UK site would kill them on day one, a German one slightly faster, Dutch and Belgian similar and Spain has enough of its own plus the North Africans... No, not much good for them but collectively whose fault is it? Their industry's intransigence.

Eco-Blocks, aerated concrete, externally insulating bricks and all the new materials they are not using plus in house building mainly using single glazed windows, unlined and uninsulated roofs and I suspect often uninsultaed walls does not compete with what outsiders ae using. In front of us is a house being self built. The man building it bit by bit is a carpenter. He is building a 'green' house with mainly wood and comes during his holidays, often with a friend, and slowly the house is going up. I have told him about new materials, he writes it all down and is looking for sources. Is it not ironic that whilst I do as much of my own work as I can, I am in fact really an academic and an anthropologist at that, and am advising on materials but the trade itself is not? I think they are on a self-defeating course.

I also see architect's work from time to time and are they all stuck in the 1950s or what? No wonder just about every new build hereabouts has so many visits from builders, plumbers and so on well after the house is finished. Some of the designs do not work for the terrain they are on and the materials then exacerbate what is designed to go awry. It is a mess, an almighty one at that.

Yes Nick, when teaching languages, especially to professionals, I always stress that although language skills are at the forefront of being able to trade/live/work in another country, once that barrier has been overcome there remains a far bigger, more difficult one, the cultural barrier! and this is where so many fail thinking the doors are open to them once they can simply communicate. Understanding the country and its systems, culture etc are the real key. Often not protectionism, just the foreigners don't actually understand what's going on or how to break into a market/sector!

As for building technology, God is France sooo way behind Germany and many of the scandinavian countries! Even all the various BTP technopôles and research centres, that do carry out excellent work, are simply not listened to, or people say it'll never work (Gedimat telling me I'd have to insulate a 37cm monomur with 100mm of lain de verre...!!! and they were convinced, we almost had a full on argument, they just wouldn't accept the facts!)

Andrew, yes BTP tends to stick with what it knows and consequently how to extrapolate the biggest profits from it. It's wrong on so many levels as there is so much clean, innovative technology out there, but we continue to pour mass after mass of concrete and lump breeze blocks ontop of breeze blocks.

Yes Italians are seeking their fortune here too, as you say not heard so much about Eastern France, another influx is from Eastern Europe (Romania in the main).

Protectionism - it has already been mooted that we (in the BTP industry) should be specifying French products and systems before others - in complete opposition to what Europe is about.

And can I make one last point ? One of the things I concluded from the article is that French companies WILL employ non-French nationals (a topic which has been thrown around in other posts), but there are certain contions:

  1. Ability to effectively communicate and understand in French
  2. Be selling your services at the right price
  3. Be able to produce the product at the quality required.

So if we apply that any auto entrepreneur, who can offer the required quality (no-probs there for the Brits), at on or below SMIC + materials (as it is not a salary in AE) and can communicate effectively (???), should be able to fill their work boots with contracts at the moment, given that the French firms all should be paying for their labour at SMIC rates.

Even bonafide non-AE companies operating at SMIC level and in theory having less overheads and profit margins than the big 4 should be able to pick up contracts (and I'm talking bigger jobs). So why can't they ? The only things I can come down to is language and/or communication and/or not understanding the rules and regulations (see point 1 above about communicating and understanding especially when applied to point 3 above).

Brian, yes 100% with you on residential builds as we've already talked about this one before. BIL at Gedimat only knows about the products they sell - they're the only ones that exist aren't they...!

Nick, big difference in BTP, nearly all contracts involve spanish or portugese companies in this part of France. the railway renovation work locally is almost always a spanish firm, the new musée Soulages in Rodez is being overseen by a group of Spanish architects, and this is just the start of it as things get tighter and tighter. It will either force big changes or harmonisation of the smic/inforcement of the french smic while they're working here. or it'll force France into yet more protectionism which, although understandable, runs against the whole ethos of the EU. Wasn't aware of the Italian involvement on the côte d'azur but that doesn't surprise me. Bet there isn't a great deal of activity crossing the Rhine though, or is there...?

Same problem as the fruit growers in Languedoc who can't sell what they grow for anything near as low as the lorries of fruit coming up from Spain that have been grown using extremely cheap moroccan workers...

Brian, yes reluctance to change is a problem. As someone previously said, the French hate change, but love a revolution.
I also believe something has to change: as you say, foreign companies are cleaning up and rightly so. A lot of the problem has been caused by the cartel formed by Bouygues, Vinci, Eiffage and Spie taking over the industry in France (Read the World).
In an attempt to overcome this on one of my recent projects and get a better price we tendered on lots séparés ie individual packages to by run by a good old site construction manager. The problem is the same, you find that the independents all have sworn allegiance to one of the big four.
So our best solution at the moment is in the hopes on outside France companies. Does nothing to help the French bricky though does it?

Andrew and I have already discussed this a little. Firstly, they are unaware or too stubborn to begin to use new materials, secondly, they are remarkably slow building (say, for example) a small house and thirdly, their standard of work leaves a lot to be desired. We had work done by the top local firm when we came, of necessity, it was unfinished so we had to complain to one of the family who own the firm. Then he came out to look and invented so many excuses we could not take him seriously. OK, it was dealt with promptly, but that was four months after 'finishing'.

I know small groups of foreign builders who are wiping the floor in this area because they are thorough and fast and, unlike their French counterparts, turn up every day for things like roofing instead of leaving awning over them for weeks with a few old tyre to hold it down whilst they work on other sites.

It is an attitude thing and they need to shake themselves out of it. The materials and outmoded building techniques must be cast aside. We have a 'neighbour' with a ruin and quite a lot of land, so he thought he would have a house built. Using a friend's archictectural plans for a house like the one he would have built he got two quotes. Both of them quite different to the other but in either case it worked out more expensive to build than the house would then be on the market to sell! That was without his own overpriced archictect's plans. Things are going to have to happen or they'll kill the entire building trade themselves. Oh yes, I am the son of a housebuilder and not the greenest boy on the block.