Cooperatives in France: Issues and challenges at the start of the 21st century

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Jean-François Draperi

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Conceived by Coop FR and the editorial team of Recma, this special issue of Recma in English presents French cooperatives today. We wanted to provide a comprehensive and multi-disciplinary picture of the French cooperative movement through six contributions on the following topics: an overview of the French cooperative sector today (Caroline Naett), the debate about the boundaries of the cooperative movement (Chrystel Giraud-Dumaire), socio-economics and the relationship between cooperatives and regions (Jean-François Draperi and Cécile Le Corroller), a comparative analysis of the organisations representing cooperatives in France, the United Kingdom and Italy (Enzo Pezzini), the history of French cooperative legislation (Loïc Seeberger) and, lastly, cooperatives in the social economy based on the legislation of July 2014 on the social and solidarity economy (David Hiez).

Caroline Naett’s article examines the contribution of cooperatives to the new French law on the social and solidarity economy and reveals the vitality of the French cooperative movement. Reminding us of the sector’s strength – 23,000 cooperative enterprises with over a million employees and 24.4 million members – she shows that the cooperative movement’s proactive involvement in the consultation process led the minister in charge to take into account the core of the movement’s recommendations. The movement’s proposals were mainly aimed at reaffirming cooperative identity.
This point is worth stressing at a time when economic and regulatory pressures and, consequently, statutory changes are challenging cooperative principles and justify the work of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) on revising the seven cooperative principles.
Chrystel Giraud-Dumaire presents the issues involved in measuring cooperatives statistically. In France, this debate is rooted in the work that the Association pour le développement de la documentation de l’économie sociale (ADDES) has been pursuing since its creation in 1982 to “determine the exact impact of the social economy”. The debate has intensified and
shifted over the past ten years, reflecting the interest sparked by the social and solidarity economy (SSE). On one side of the debate is what could be called the dominant argument of the SSE as put forward by the Observatoire national de l’économie sociale et solidaire (ONESS), and on the other side is the argument of cooperatives strictly speaking as advanced by Coop FR, one of the major institutional intermediaries. This debate has both theory implications – it divides the research community – and policy implications – as so much of the data published by the two sides differs. The figures in  the Atlas de l’ESS by ONESS and Coop FR’s figures can vary by as much as threefold. This debate is related to a question that arises in France, as elsewhere, insofar as the consolidated figures for the cooperative movement are none other than the ICA’s. The author discusses both the disagreements and the progress made in this still ongoing debate. Extracts from the “Sectoral
panorama of cooperative enterprises”, providing key figures on cooperatives in France, round off the analysis.
Expanding on the context set by those two contributions, the article by Jean-François Draperi and Cécile Le Corroller presents a cooperative socio-economics based on an examination of the relationships between cooperatives and regions. Distinguishing the situation of large and small
cooperatives as well as a range of regional identities, the authors highlight specific and complex relationships. In general, small cooperatives are very broadly a reflection of the regions where they were started while large cooperatives construct their own regional identities. In both cases,
cooperatives develop original ways of behaving in terms of the geographical space. Based on these observations, the authors propose a typology of five cooperative regions in which cooperation is 1) rather rooted in tradition; 2) integrated in the dominant economy; 3) serving the public interest; 4) concerned with identity and alternative principles; or 5) multi-stakeholder and inter-cooperative. These types are the many expressions of an original socio-economic development project in the geographical milieu.
The article by Enzo Pezzini widens the scope of investigation to the European level in his examination of the organisation of cooperative federations in France, the United Kingdom and Italy. This comparative study provides an opportunity to present the cooperative sector within both these three countries and the European context. The author identifies three organisational models as “sectoral” in France, “cross-sectoral” in the United Kingdom, and “integrated” in Italy, and shows that this diversity presents a challenge for the European cooperative movement, in particular in dealing with powerful lobby groups. The cooperative movement needs to speak with a single voice and move beyond the sectoral model that shapes
cooperative representation on the European level. This change, the author concludes, is fundamentally a question of political will.
To best understand the contemporary evolution of cooperatives, we feel the reader should have an overview of the evolution of French cooperative law. Starting from the first relevant legislation, the Companies Act of 24 July 1867, until the general law on cooperatives of 10 September 1947, Loïc Seeberger’s historical survey captures the complexity of cooperative legislation. Looking back at the past reveals how the different forms of French cooperatives have been established in company law with the exception of agricultural cooperatives, which are a special category under separate
legislation. The author also highlights the importance of the Act of 2014 on the social and solidarity economy. The scope of that legislation extends beyond cooperatives. The originators of the term “social economy”, the French cooperative movement is a major player in the SSE, while the legislation increasingly defines the political framework for the movement’s expression. Defining the SSE is an endless debate to which the legislation clearly provides a new context.
David Hiez looks at this whole vast law – around a hundred articles and eighty pages long – on the social and solidarity economy, which was passed on 31 July 2014. According to the author, the legislation reflects the return of government support for the SSE. This support takes various forms including financial measures, the strengthening of the SSE’s traditional mechanisms, the possibility of partnerships, improving legal certainty, etc. This is thus an ambitious and important piece of legislation that organisations can embrace
French cooperatives are probably at a turning point in their two-hundred year history. With greater consolidation, particularly in agriculture and food processing, the growth of worker cooperatives (sociétés coopératives et participatives, or SCOPs), artisanal cooperatives (cooperatives artisanales),
business and employment cooperatives (coopératives d’activités et d’emploi, or CAEs) and community-interest cooperatives (sociétés coopératives d’intérêt collectif, or SCICs), and the resurgence of the consumer cooperative
movement, the debates concerning cooperatives reveal more than ever the pressures they face and their determination to promote collective, free, democratic and socially responsible entrepreneurship. There is certainly no shortage of pitfalls. However, as demonstrated by the resistance of the Cooperative Wholesale Society in Manchester to the attempted hostile takeover between 1997 and 1999 (see Graham Melmoth’s article in Recma, no. 271, January 1999), the commitment of cooperative members is the guarantee of a cooperative future. Greater participation in general assemblies and the refocusing of large cooperatives, including those in the banking sector, on
fundamental values indicate that the phase of degeneration and probably demutualisation may be over. Through the combined work of researchers and practitioners, let us make the cooperative movement capable not only of resisting the dominant economic model but also of sharing its choices with an ever-growing number of men and women.
I hope you enjoy this special issue.