A Deeper Fraternité
Par Christine Blaise-Engel
Following the Rugby World Cup final, the recent royal state visit to France, and the recent hugely successful (and widely attended) IBA conference in Paris, Head of International Christine Blaise-Engel discusses how the bonds between France and the UK go beyond Paris and London.
Although the French team sadly were not at the Stade de France for the Rugby World Cup final on 28 October, the event remains a fitting climax for France, capping off a busy month on the world stage. One in which relationships have been rekindled, particularly after King Charles’s first state visit to our country in late September.
The sight of the Tricolore and the Union Jack flying together in the Palace of Versailles was hugely resonant for the thousands of Parisians who enthusiastically turned out to greet the new King. His late mother the Queen’s last official trip to France was in 2014. Since then, much has changed in the discourse between our two neighbouring countries. Brexit, Covid-19 and the immigration crisis have, outwardly at least, cast a long shadow over how our leaders have interacted.
When he toasted King Charles in Versailles, President Emmanuel Macron was quick to address what he considered a temporary blip in an otherwise long and deep relationship, saying: “Despite Brexit and because our ties are so old, I know that we will continue to write together part of our continent’s history.” For his part, the King made huge strides in reinvigorating the Anglo-French relationship, and it is impossible to downplay how honoured we felt to have a king visit our country, and quite literally, speak our language. Combined with the Rugby World Cup, which France is hosting, it has made us feel like the centre of the world – for a month at least. French lawyers enjoyed an additional afterparty (as did Lionel Messi with his Ballon d’Or triumph) as the great and good of the legal profession descended on Paris for the International Bar Association’s annual conference, just as the World Cup wound down.
There is also significance in the fact that the IBA Annual Conference was in Paris this year. Arguably the most important legal conference in the calendar, it brought together lawyers from more than 130 jurisdictions in the French capital to, amongst other reasons, meet France’s legal sector. It is a reminder that France is very much a major force on the world’s legal stage, that it is open for business and that we are an important part of the global legal sector of the future.
Beyond the pageantry, one of the more meaningful aspects of King Charles’s trip was how he ventured to areas outside of Paris, such as Bordeaux, where shared interests in sustainability and organic agriculture came to the fore. This sharing of knowledge and interest can often carry much greater value when you leave the confines of a country’s capital city. A deeper dive into France, and away from its seat of power, demonstrated how many of our shared interests and goals haven’t shifted despite the high politics of the last seven years and the more divisive language of Brexit. The regions are the workhorses of any country, and they should never be ignored.
The strategic value of our cross-Channel relationship remains strong and evenly matched, with France being the UK’s fifth largest export market, and the UK being France’s sixth largest. While a large portion of this, such as financial services, will go through London and Paris, there is still plenty that reaches beyond our two capital cities. This activity, and the resulting legal support, is best served by those with local knowledge. A fact I encounter during my regular visits to UK areas outside of London.
Being more active in the UK market is born out of our own strategic focus at Fidal. Although a strong presence in Paris is of great importance to many of our clients, it is but one junction in a wider web of regional offices whose greatest value comes through local knowledge and feet on the ground. Some of this will stem from an in-depth understanding of the industries that gravitate to certain regions in France, such as the winemakers of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the many life sciences companies that operate in Lyons, and the food and beverages industry that has developed around Brittany.
The same local understanding is required for the highly influential workers’ committees that exist within any company of over 50 employees. Stakeholders such as these can play a make-or-break role in any takeover, with the ability to delay a deal and frustrate potential investors from abroad. The fastest way to counteract such risks is through local counsel who understand each stakeholder and respond accordingly.
The particularities of the French Civil Code and the autonomy enjoyed by France’s local courts is another factor in why effective legal representation can be done more efficiently through an on-the-ground presence. The individual power of the local courts can be relevant to the way in which the contentious and non-contentious matters are approached. This is especially the case in areas such as insolvency law, where lawyers need to be embedded with the courts to have a thorough understanding of what is happening. An in-depth knowledge of any local peculiarities, including how the judges behave, is vital for serving a client’s interests effectively. Other regional discrepancies exist, such as in the regions of Alsace and Mosel, where real estate transactions are influenced by German laws for historical reasons.
For mid-size companies and investors operating outside of the spheres of Paris and London, the advantages of looking beyond the capital’s law firms go beyond cost. The challenge now is for French firms to become more proactive and connect with their UK counterparts to facilitate this greater efficiency of service and sharing of local expertise. The historical barriers to this, for many French firms at least, have been cultural. The French legal profession has traditionally taken a more reactive approach to the market, with a view that we are lawyers first and service providers second. It has only been in the last 10 years that firms have invested more heavily into their marketing, communications, and business development. This has sometimes left us lagging, particularly when it comes to our international ambitions. Even in London you are more likely to find the outpost of a Spanish, German and Dutch firm than a French one.
As demonstrated by King Charles’s recent state visit, and even after the Rugby World Cup, although our politicians might endure the occasional fallout, our shared values and interests, and our history of alliance and trade are tough to break. Forging multiple local connections across the channel will only make the bond between our countries stronger – not just to the benefit of our business, but also that of our clients.