Business Structures and Registering a Business in France

How to set up a French business: details on the sole trader (EI), limited liability single operator (EURL) and the SARL (company)...

Any for-profit activity in France - regardless of the amount of revenue generated - requires a legal structure, with the business either:

  • Registered as an individual operator, or
  • Registered as a company/corporation

The most-seen legal structures are:

  1. Self-employed/Sole trader: Entreprise Individuelle (EI).
  2. Limited liability single shareholder corporation: Entreprise Unipersonelle à Responsibilité Limitée (EURL).
  3. Limited liability joint stock corporations, including:
    • Société à Responsibilité Limitée (SARL)
    • Société Anonyme (SA)
    • Société par Actions Simplifiée (SAS)

Registration with the Centre de Formalités des Entreprises, CFE

The CFE is a single organisation that receives and processes business registration application forms and documents as well as details on changes to, or the closing of, businesses. There is a CFE office/counter in each local business organisation overseeing body.

Business organisation overseeing bodies

Registration of a new operation must be made at the appropriate CFE. Where to go depends on the nature of the business being started:

  • Chambre de Commerce et d'Industrie (CCI):
    • Shopkeepers
    • Commercial companies (EURL, SARL, SA, SAS, SNC) with no "artisanal" component to the business
  • Chambre de Métiers et de l'Artisan:
    • Tradespeople, artisans
    • Companies combining craft and commerce
  • Chambre Nationale de la Batellerie Artisanale:
    • Sole traders and companies involved in inland water transportation
  • Greffe du Tribunal de Commerce:
    • Non-trading companies and companies with a non-commercial purpose (SCI, SCM, SCP)
    • Industrial and publicly-owned commercial establishments (EPIC)
    • Companies of regulated professionals (SELARL, SELAFA, SELCA)
    • Commercial agents
  • URSSAF:
    • Regulated and non-regulated professionals
    • Employers whose company is not registered with the commercial or trade authorities (the Registre du commerce et des Sociétés or with the Répertoire des Métiers).
  • Service des Impôts des Entreprises:
    • Artists, writers
    • Other activities on the BIC tax régime not fitting the above (such as rental of furnished property)
  • Chambre d'Agriculture:
    • Individuals and companies operating in agricultural activities

What the CFE Does

The CFE distributes each element of a business registration application to the relevant organisation for processing:

  1. INSEE, which registers the company with the Répertoire National des Entreprises (RNE) and allocates a SIREN number and a SIRET number and the APE number.
  2. Tax services.
  3. Social security services (URSSAF, Régime Social des Indépendants (RSI), professionals' pension scheme).
  4. The Greffe du Tribunal de Commerce if it's a company being formed or if the activity is commercial. It is then registered with the Registre du Commerce et des Sociétés (RCS).
  5. The Répertoire des Métiers if the activity is a trade or the person an artisan.
  6. The Caisses Socials and Inspection du Travail if there are to be employees at the start of trade.
  • In some areas the CFE provides all application services online

Numbers: SIRET, SIREN, NAF (APE), VAT

1) The SIREN number (made up of three groups of three digits) is the business reference number used by French administrative offices.

Examples of SIREN and related numbers:

  • Commercial individuals and companies: RCS PARIS 123 456 789
    RCS is the company and trade register
    City name is place of registration
    123 456 789 is the Siren number
  • Artisans and trades registered with the Chambre de Métiers et de l'Artisan: 123 456 789 RM 987
    123 456 789 is the Siren number
    RM is the register of the trades
    987 is the number identifying the chambre
  • Professions registered with URSSAF: 123 456 789 is the SIREN

2) The SIRET number identifies the establishment: the same company can have several. This number is quoted in dealings with local social services, tax offices and ASSEDIC (state unemployment).

The SIRET is a 14 digit number consisting of the SIREN (the business identifier) and a five digit NIC code (the establishment identifier).

3) The NAF code identifies the stated primary activity of the business at the time of registration. It is made up of four digits and a letter (in accordance with European systems).

4) The VAT number (numéro de TVA intracommunautaire) is issued to companies and individuals providing services or selling good and products. It is obligatory above a certain threshold of income, optional below that threshold. A French VAT number is made up of 13 characters: the two-character country code (FR), a two-digit data processing code and the SIREN number. The TVA number must be quoted on all invoices issued by a TVA-registered business.

  • The APCE have more information (in French)

Names and logos

The only way to protect a business name and/or logo in France is to register it as a trademark (dépôt de marque) with INPI. This requires making an application, completing a form and paying a fee. The concept of "prior use", common in many jurisdictions, does not exist in France - that a name or logo may have been in use prior to its registration (by the registrant or a third party) carries no legal weight.

  • The APCE have more information (in French)