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The Social and Solidarity Economy in France

The Social and Solidarity Economy (ESS) brings together a set of structures that seek to reconcile social utility, solidarity, economic performance, and democratic governance, with the ambition of giving our society greater social cohesion.

They are partnerships and not capital companies, which operate collectively and democratically and which give priority to the local territory.

They are united around a few main principles:

  • a purpose aimed at the general or collective interest,
  • democratic governance, based on the principle “one person = one vote”,
  • limited lucrativity,
  • the primacy of the human person over capital,
  • a strong link to their territory,
  • free membership.

The ESS law of July 31, 2014 gave this definition to the ESS:

The social and solidarity economy is a mode of entrepreneurship and economic development adapted to all areas of human activity to which adhere legal entities of private law that meet the following cumulative conditions:

  1. A goal pursued other than the sole sharing of profits;
  2. Democratic governance, defined and organized by the statutes, providing for information and participation, the expression of which is not only linked to their capital contribution or to the amount of their financial contribution, of the associates, employees, and stakeholders in the achievements of the company;
  3. Management in accordance with the following principles:
  4. Profits are mainly devoted to the objective of maintaining or developing the company’s activity;
  5. The obligatory reserves constituted, which cannot be shared, may not be distributed…
  6. The companies recognized by law as belonging to the ESS have various statutes: associations, cooperatives, mutual societies, foundations, social enterprises… The majority of them are associations.

A Bit of History

Today’s Social and Solidarity Economy has ancient roots. Men and women have long ago had the idea of helping each other, of associating, of pooling their ideas and their money, to survive, to live better or to organize themselves professionally. This solidarity can be found, as early as the Middle Ages, in these particular organizations that are the “guilds”, corporations, brotherhoods, companionship …

But it was in the 19th century, in reaction to the difficulties and injustices generated by the industrial revolution, that what was to become the Social Economy really took root. The ideas that emerged at that time took different forms such as workers’ associations, mutual aid societies, agricultural cooperatives, workers’ production, consumption and credit cooperatives.

It began to be theorized by thinkers such as Charles Gide (1847-1932), for whom the Social Economy was “a different organization of political and social life”.

This is how the statutes of cooperatives and mutual societies were born at the end of the 19th century, and then associations in 1901. For a long time, the social economy referred to all three families, which were particularly active in social protection, insurance, banking, social action, popular education, sport, culture and agriculture…

In its modern definition, the Social and Solidarity Economy as a “different collective way of doing business” was institutionalized in the early 1980s, after a long period of withdrawal from the public arena.

The multiplication of initiatives, particularly in response to the effects of the social and environmental crises, gave it back a visibility, which has continued to develop ever since, until its legislative recognition by the law of July 31, 2014.

A few milestones

1830: The term Social Economy first appears when Charles Dunoyer publishes the “New Social Economy Treaty”.

1850: Mutual Aid Societies Act

1885: Creation of the first French federation of consumer cooperatives

1898: First charter of the Mutual Insurance Company

1900: The World Fair hosts a pavilion for the social economy

1901: Freedom of Association Act

1947: Law defining the status of cooperation

1980: Publication of the Social Economy Charter, defining its principles and values.

1981: Creation of an Interministerial Delegation for the Social Economy

2000: A Secretariat of State for the Social and Solidarity Economy is created.

2001: Constitution of the CEGES (Council of Enterprises, Employers and Social Economy Groupings), the sector’s representative body. The European Charter for the Social Economy is promulgated.

2004: Creation of the CNCRES, which brings together all the CRES.

2006: Creation of the Higher Council for the Social Economy, a consultation body between the public authorities and the sector.

2014 : Law relating to the ESS, known as the Hamon law.


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Vasilis Bouronikos
Content & Communication Manager

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