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The institutionalisation of the social and solidarity economy in France as a meso-space

A periodisation from a meso-regulationist perspective
L’institutionnalisation de l’espace méso de l’économie sociale et solidaire en France. Une périodisation historique dans une perspective méso-régulationniste
La institucionalización del mesoespacio de la economía social y solidaria en Francia. Una periodización histórica desde una perspectiva meso-regulacionista
Sylvain Celle


L’économie sociale et solidaire (ESS) apparait aujourd’hui comme un système économique relativement spécifique au sein des économies contemporaines. Malgré un désintérêt des économistes pour cet objet, quelques économistes institutionnalistes et notamment régulationnistes invitent à saisir cette spécificité en soulignant la diversité des modes de coordination et des arrangements institutionnels à l’œuvre dans les économies capitalistes. Plus précisément, des travaux régulationnistes proposent de saisir l’ESS ou certaines de ses composantes (coopératives, mutuelles, etc.) comme des espaces mésoéconomiques relativement autonomes au sein du régime capitaliste. Dans cette perspective d’analyse, cet article cherche à comprendre comment l’ESS s’est progressivement construite au cours de l’histoire comme un espace mésoéconomique relativement unifié et autonome autour de trois principales périodes, correspondant à trois principaux compromis historiques dans la construction de l’ESS comme espace méso au regard de dynamiques internes (organisationnelles, idéologiques, etc.) et de son insertion dans l’évolution des régimes capitalistes. Un premier compromis libéral (1790-1880) est caractérisé par l’émergence des premières organisations de l’ESS qui reste encore éclatée dans un régime dominé par le libéralisme économique. Un deuxième compromis républicain (1880-1970) est caractérisé par l’institutionnalisation et la division de grandes familles de l’ESS (coopératives, mutuelles, associations) sous l’égide de l’État social. Enfin un troisième compromis néolibéral (depuis 1970) éclaire l’unification et l’institutionnalisation récente de l’ESS en tant qu’espace mésoéconomique, mais dont l’unité et l’autonomie face aux pressions du capitalisme contemporain apparaissent encore fragiles.

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I would like to thank the members of the “Théorie de la regulation et cooperatives” seminar, coordinated by Nadine Richez-Battesti and Thomas Lamarche, whose collective exchanges have greatly enhanced this article. I would also like to thank Nicholas Sowels for his invitation to the Regulation Theory & Crises of Capitalism conference in Paris on 8/9 September 2022, which enabled me to present a first version of this paper. Finally, I would like to thank the referees and the editorial board for their careful reading and comments, which have significantly improved the quality of this article.

  • 1 The term “SSE”, now used by international institutions, is a category that was historically develo (...)

1The social and solidarity economy (SSE) is an economic system that is somewhat difficult to understand, both because of the broad variety of practices, ideas and entities that make it up, but also because it is largely marginalised within capitalist economies. The unity and existence of the SSE has been widely debated by actors and researchers alike (Hély, 2013). A significant step towards this recognition and unification was taken in 2014 when French legislation recognised the SSE as a specific “mode of enterprise and economic development” in terms of its rules (not-for-profit, democratic governance, responsible management) and its component organisations (cooperatives, mutual insurance companies, associations, foundations, social enterprises). Moreover, France is not an isolated case as SSE legislation has existed in various parts of the world (particularly in Western Europe, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa) for some years now (Caire & Tadjudje, 2019). International institutions such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) have also shown an interest by putting forward a definition and framework for the SSE1 in a resolution of June 2022:

  • 2 International Labour Conference, 110th Session, 2022, Resolution concerning decent work and the so (...)

2The SSE encompasses companies, organisations and other entities that are engaged in economic, social, and environmental activities to serve the collective and/or public interest, which are based on the principles of voluntary cooperation and mutual aid, democratic and/or participatory governance, autonomy and independence, and the primacy of people and social purpose over capital in the distribution and use of surpluses and/or profits as well as assets. […] According to national circumstances, the SSE includes cooperatives, associations, mutual societies, foundations, social companies, self-help groups and other entities operating in accordance with the values and principles of the SSE.2

3These recent definitions and legislation may appear to be a novelty, but they are the outcome of the institutionalisation of an economic system whose early practices, ideas and organisations emerged in the nineteenth century in the capitalist countries of Western Europe, even if they are part of the heritage of older community practices. Despite its socio-economic significance both in France (Observatoire – CNCRESS, 2020) and internationally (Bouchard & Rousselière, 2015), the SSE is still relatively marginalised in the research and teaching of economists (Dorival, Duverger & Sibille, 2023). There are several reasons for this marginalisation: the SSE is still somewhat invisible, situated somewhere between the market and the state, and alongside the large capitalist firms. Its characteristic elements, such as solidarity, democracy and non-profit-making, remain difficult to conceptualise in the dominant theories of economics. The SSE, or the third sector in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, is best analysed in terms of the failure of the market and the state, or from a more heterodox perspective as a crutch for capitalism, but the SSE is rarely thought of as an economic system with its own dynamic. Some economists, such as Robert Boyer (2023a), also point to the fragmentation and absence of veritable theories of the SSE, which contribute to its invisibility. While heterodox approaches, particularly institutionalist approaches, have made it possible to emphasise the diversity of institutional arrangements, the SSE is struggling to find its place in macro-economic and micro-economic approaches, even heterodox ones. Many studies focus on specific behaviours such as volunteering, on certain organisational forms such as associations and cooperatives, or even on certain sectors such as cooperative banks or social tourism, but very few offer an overall view of the SSE and its integration into capitalism, like the seminal work by Vienney (1994). Nevertheless, a new generation of regulationist studies is once again opening up this perspective, which is the starting point for this article. In the field of French literature, it was the “institutionalist turning point” (Demoustier, 2012) in research on the SSE that rendered the analytical framework of Regulation Theory (RT) particularly relevant. In the early 1990s, this approach to the social economy was mentioned by Vienney (1994), in the early 2000s by Demoustier (2001), or in Quebec by Lévesque (Fossati, Degavre & Lévesque, 2018). However, only in the mid-2010s did the SSE really become a subject for analysis within RT, as in, for example, a dossier on the RECMA review (Lamarche & Koleva, 2013), a workshop on the SSE at the international RT colloquium of 2015 and a research group on RT and cooperatives (TR-coop), set up in 2016 by Thomas Lamarche and Nadine Richez-Battesti. As evidence of this interest and recognition, an issue of the Revue de la régulation was published on cooperatives in the summer of 2023 (Lamarche & Richez-Battesti, 2023), a chapter of the Regulation School compendium, the Nouvel État des savoirs, focuses on the SSE (Richez-Battesti, 2023), and Robert Boyer (2023a) has published a book on the SSE which reflects, more broadly, the openness of RT towards an understanding of accumulation and appropriation regimes that include “modes of articulation with non-capitalist forms” (Boyer, 2023b, p. 33), while other regulationist works have opened up other paths in this area.

4This regulationist work has generally focused on particular organisational forms (often analysed as productive models) such as business and employment cooperatives (Bodet et al., 2013; Ballon, 2020; Ballon et al., 2023) or cooperative and participative supermarkets (Grassart, 2023). More recent work analyses certain forms of cooperatives (Bodet & Lamarche, 2020; Lamarche & Richez-Battesti, 2023; Ballon & Celle, 2023) or sectoral areas such as home care services (Gallois, 2012) from a meso perspective. But these meso-spaces are themselves part of a meso-space of the SSE that has not yet been studied as such. Without ignoring the value of a more macro-economic view of the SSE (Boyer, 2023a) but which tends to see the SSE exclusively in the context of the capitalist system and its crises, the SSE as a unit has never really been analysed from a meso perspective, even though we feel that this would be a very useful approach. The meso approach invites us to go beyond the idea that the SSE can be reduced to a myriad of local experiments, or to the simple addition of certain spaces that make it up, such as cooperatives and mutual societies. The objective is to understand the way in which the SSE has emerged as a meso-space that is relatively unified, autonomous and differentiated from the regime of capitalist accumulation, and capable of driving institutional change at its heart (Lamarche & Richez-Battesti, 2023). As the latter invite us to do, we are going to emphasise the political dimension, the “political work” (Smith, 2019; Ansaloni et al., 2020; Itçaina, 2023), at play in the dynamics of accumulation, including in meso-spaces. The analysis of conflicts and alliances between actors allows us to understand the emergence and evolution of compromises that, over a period of time, stabilise the unity and relative autonomy of the SSE meso-space.

5In this article, and following on from this collective research on the SSE within RT, we will focus on the institutionalisation in the long history (since the nineteenth century) of the SSE in France as a relatively differentiated and autonomous meso-space within capitalist economies. An institutionalisation that remains fragile at all times. It is characterised by tensions and conflicts in the construction of the unity of the SSE space from other movements and spaces (cooperative, mutualist, etc.) that are imbricated and constitute the SSE. It is also characterised by the difficulties faced by the SSE space in preserving its autonomy and its differences as it integrates into capitalism, which is also evolving, through logics of social innovation as well as trivialisation. In the first part, we present the regulationist and, more broadly, institutionalist framework of analysis, followed by a periodisation of the SSE from a meso-economic standpoint. The second part focuses on the SSE in France and the three major historical compromises–the liberal compromise (1790–1880); the republican compromise (1880–1970); and the neoliberal compromise (1970–present). Based on a historical survey, the aim is to identify stylised facts and characteristic features of each compromise in order to understand how, over two centuries, the SSE has gradually become unified and autonomous.

1. A meso-regulationist approach to SSE history

1.1. Understanding the SSE as the institutionalisation of reciprocal solidarity within a meso-space

6The institutionalist approach does not put forward a general theory or doctrine of the SSE but rather considers it to be a part of a general theory of the economy and society (Lamarche, 2013; Blanc, 2014). Institutionalist theory is relevant insofar as it is based on an analytical framework for studying capitalist economies in which there are multiple coordination mechanisms and complementary, interlocking, and hierarchical systems of rules. Beyond the market and the state, or even the capitalist firm, institutionalist and regulationist studies insist on the existence of other coordination mechanisms such as the community or civil society, networks or associations (Streeck & Schmitter, 1985; Hollingworth & Boyer, 1997; Jessop, 2020; Boyer, 2023a).

7If the SSE is an institutional construction whose history we are studying here, can we identify, from an analytical point of view, principles, rules, mechanisms or organisational structures specific to the SSE and differentiating it from other economic systems? Beyond a single organisational interpretation, the SSE is also often analysed at an institutional level as a specific sector (Fauquet, 1935; Desroche, 1983; Vienney, 1994), or a social movement (Draperi, 2011; Laville, 2016). In the literature, theorists of the solidarity economy, inspired by Polanyi, insist on the predominance of the principle of reciprocity over market exchange, redistribution and householding (Servet, 2007; Gardin, 2006; Laville, 2016). One of the limitations of these approaches is that they confuse the market economy and capitalism, which limits our understanding of the hierarchies and complementarities between these principles in the SSE and the capitalist dynamic, particularly in the productive sphere (and not just exchange) and in its link with the logic of accumulation. From a regulationist perspective, however, Théret (1999) has a similar idea when he considers “societalism” or “civil socialism” in the sense that civil society, with its own sphere of social practices embedded in the domestic order and based on a principle of “reciprocal solidarity”, would be dominant over the economic order (the world of wealth and the market) and the political order (the world of power and the state). From this perspective, we can consider that the SSE is founded on the hierarchical superiority–but dominated in the capitalist regime–of the principle of reciprocal solidarity, which is made possible by a set of rules that today define the SSE: voluntary commitment, collective ownership, equality between members, democracy and a limited profit-making purpose. This reciprocity can be expressed in different ways in the SSE: unequal reciprocity, reciprocity between peers and multilateral reciprocity (Castel, 2015).

8A second question may emerge. On what scale is this principle of reciprocity institutionalised? It has never been dominant within an economic regime–what Théret calls “civil socialism”–but the hypothesis defended here is that, within capitalist societies, this principle of reciprocal solidarity has been institutionalised–in the sense of being codified as relatively stable rules–in entities (cooperatives, mutual societies and associations) that have progressively sought to build a space of (dominated) autonomy, through the SSE, on a meso-economic scale.

9Meso analysis within RT (Lamarche et al., 2015; Lamarche, 2023) can be used to describe the regularities that emerge in the differentiation processes of social spaces that are relatively autonomous, being independent both from a regime of accumulation at the macro level and from the actors and organisations that make it up at the micro level. Like all socio-economic systems, meso-spaces are subject to conflicts between multiple actors who attempt to overcome their divisions and build unity and autonomy through social compromises institutionalised at the meso level, but which are hierarchically integrated into an economic system.

10The aim of the historical periodisation work is precisely to explain the institutionalisation of the SSE as a meso-space by explaining the emergence of meso-compromises that are relatively stable over time, and which reflect both the balance of power between the diversity of actors and entities that make up this space, while at the same time taking into consideration its integration into a more global dynamic of accumulation.

1.2. Building a periodisation of the historical compromises of the SSE meso-space in the dynamics of capitalism

  • 3 Our translation.

11The SSE meso-space is the result of a socio-historical construction whose content and contours, and even name, have evolved over time and space. RT is inscribed in a tradition of historical institutionalism which seeks to develop “historicised theories explaining situated regularities on the basis of institutional matrices”3 (Labrousse, 2023). The regulationist conceptual framework has been used in particular to build periodisations in order to explain, in the long term and on a macro-economic scale, the major historical sequences and crises between the successive regimes of accumulation and modes of regulation. Apart from explaining the major changes in capitalism, periodisation at a meso level can also be of interest because “it is often within meso-spaces that organisational modes are formed which, by extending beyond their initial space, help create new regulations” (Chanteau et al., 2016). But meso periodisation cannot be reduced to macro temporalities, so the challenge is then to explain the imbrication of changes at multilevel and multitemporal scales and to outline relationships, or even bundles of causes, between these different levels of analysis.

12A few works by historians (Gueslin, 1998; Duverger, 2016; Dreyfus, 2016), theorists (Draperi, 2014; Laville, 2016) or historians of economic thought (Ferraton, 2007; Fretel, 2008), or economists close to RT (Demoustier, 2001; 2015) have already proposed periodisations, focusing on particular periods or issues, but without taking into account the SSE’s meso dynamic. Periodisations from a meso-regulationist perspective have begun to be proposed, but focusing on the more specific case of workers’ cooperatives (Bodet & Lamarche, 2020; Ballon et al., 2023). These historical studies remain all the more valuable because they are few and far between, especially since the sources and history of the SSE have yet to be fully explored (Dreyfus, 2016). But the change of viewpoint through the meso scale invites us to propose a new periodisation in order to account for the specific dynamics at work (in the interaction between actors, autonomous regulations, relations with other spaces or integration into capitalism) in temporalities specific to the SSE meso-space.

  • 4 Our historical research has focused in particular on in-depth case studies of production and consu (...)

13We feel that this new periodisation is all the more necessary as there has been a new historiography since the mid-2010s (Duverger, 2016; Dreyfus, 2017; Blin et al., 2020; Chaïbi, Duverger & Toucas-Truyen, 2024), inviting us to revisit the history of the SSE from a regulationist perspective. We adopt a methodological approach based on historical institutionalism (Labrousse et al., 2017), which is concerned with using empirical enquiries (here mainly qualitative and historical), favouring a scheme of Abduction-Deduction-Induction (A-D-I), and interactions between relatively autonomous but interdependent micro-meso-macro levels. The objective here is to describe the long-term dynamics of the SSE at a meso level. This article is based on our own research (individual and collective) on the history of the SSE, which is based in particular on archive work and case studies of cooperative and associative organisations and movements in the SSE (Celle, 2020).4 In this thesis, we sought to propose a periodisation that would seek to combine the levels of analysis in order to show how they are imbricated–between the history of particular organisations (such as a consumer cooperative) at the micro level; situated in the history of particular meso movements and spaces (such as the consumer cooperative movement); themselves situated in the history of a meso-space of the SSE caught up in the regulations of capitalism. For each level, we drew on archives and the work of historians to account for the autonomous (although interdependent) dynamics at each level. The aim of this article is to provide an overview of this third level.

  • 5 In summary, the “futurity” channel refers to the construction of a common representation of the fu (...)

14From this perspective, we identify major historical configurations of the SSE meso-space which we call compromises. These are compromises of a meso-institutional order between internal regulations of this social space linked to the actors, entities and movements that compose it, and external regulations linked to the integration of this space into a socio-economic and political regime. A compromise, from a perspective that emphasises the profoundly political dimension of economic regularities and accumulation dynamics (Ansaloni et al., 2020), refers to the stabilisation of power relationships and rules within this space over a long period of time. To understand how meso-spaces are structured, Lamarche et al. (2021) identify three differentiation channels–labour, products-competition and futurity–to which Ballon & Celle (2023) and Lamarche (2023) have proposed adding new channels like governance and the environment.5 Several of these channels will serve as reference points for showing how the processes of unification, autonomisation and differentiation of the SSE as a meso-space operate through its practices, rules, entities and ideologies. The transition between each compromise reflects the decline, emergence and institutionalisation of practices, ideas, rules and new power relations within the SSE space, changes that are also punctuated by conflicts and crises and more global social, political, legal and economic changes. On the basis of our historical surveys, we have identified three main institutional compromises of the SSE meso-space in French capitalism which are presented in the following figure and detailed in the next section.

Figure 1. Periodisation of compromises in the SSE meso-space

Figure 1. Periodisation of compromises in the SSE meso-space

Source: author (2024)

2. A three-phase periodisation of the institutionalisation of SSE meso-space in French capitalism

2.1. The liberal compromise (1790–1880): an emerging meso-space around new associative ideas, practices and entities

15The first perimeter of what we will call the SSE can be seen around the emergence of new forms of collective organisation in early nineteenth century capitalism when economic liberalism predominated–i.e. the principle of “laissez-faire” resulting in competitive regulation of prices and wages–with a state that was not very interventionist, but repressive within the framework of political regimes that remained unstable (republics, monarchies, empires). The industrial and democratic “revolutions” between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries disrupted the old forms of solidarity and saw the emergence of the “association” that represents a new form of reciprocal solidarity between equal individuals in a democratic society and has become autonomous from the domestic order. But this mode of coordination remained institutionally dominated in an economic system in which the social hierarchies of the Ancien Régime persisted, while at the same time being seen as an obstacle to the liberal capitalism that was becoming the norm. The first modern associative ideas and practices emerged with the French Revolution (Fretel, 2006), but it was not until 1830 that the association gradually became the main means of collective action (Tilly, 1986) and one of the main solutions to the “social question” and the rise of pauperism (Castel, 1995). These experiments fuelled debates of social reformers, and the notion of “social economy” appeared in the 1830s, at which time it constituted knowledge spanning the dominant political economy and the budding social sciences. It referred to a set of practical solutions to the social question that were not restricted to associative organisations (Donzelot, 1994). The SSE was not yet a unified and differentiated space, either ideologically or practically.

16There were three main ideological references that sought to justify the development of associative organisations but without the SSE constituting a theoretical entity distinct from these major ideologies. They were landmarks in the construction of futurity for the various movements that formed the emerging SSE at the time:

  • Economic liberalism (Charles Dunoyer, Alexis de Tocqueville or Frédéric Bastiat, etc.) saw the association (employers’ mutual aid, philanthropic works) as a means of improving wage relations by respecting liberal principles (foresight, responsibility, benevolence, property, competition, etc.);

  • Social Catholicism and corporatism (Albert de Melun, Frédéric Le Play) saw associations (mutual societies, charities) as an extension of the family and corporatist order to moralise the working classes;

  • Associationist Socialism (Saint Simon, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, Philippe Buchez, etc.) saw workers’ associations (pre-cooperatives) as a new labour organisation and a new society based on “brotherly” or democratic solidarity. Associationism constitutes an initial form of autonomisation of an ideology specific to the SSE.

17Through association, these thinkers developed new conceptions of solidarity that were reciprocal but usually unequal (between worker and employer, poor and rich, etc.), fitting it largely into a liberal scheme of things in which benevolence was merely a complement to individual responsibility, which remained paramount (Fretel, 2008), although a more egalitarian conception of solidarity was emerging in associationism.

18These ideological debates reflected the emergence of new associative practices that became progressively formalised from the 1830s onwards in three main organisational models that were to form the basis of the SSE of the time:

  • Mutual aid societies were part of the legacy of the guild and journeymen provident funds of the Ancien Régime. Their objective was to pool funds to insure their members against the uncertainties of life (illness, old age, etc.) at a time when the state hardly ever intervened in terms of social protection. There were two main models of mutual societies: the popular or workers’ mutual societies and the “employer” mutual aid societies supported by the Church and employers business owners. From 1850 onwards, during the Second Empire, state-controlled “imperial” mutual societies also appeared on the scene. These organisations were to form the basis of the mutualist movement.
  • Charities and congregations instigated by Catholic and Protestant elites and philanthropists, such as the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Society, created in 1833 in Paris. They filled the gap left by the state in terms of assistance to the poor and the elderly, following the precepts of social Christianity. These organisations form the basis of today’s health and social associations.
  • Workers’ associations, supported by the elite of the urban workers’ movement, and most often multifunctional (e.g. production, consumption, welfare, credit, education, professional protection pre-trade unions political demands pre-political parties) enabled workers to gain access to the instruments of production, consumption and credit, and to demand rights (to work, citizenship, gender equality, etc.). They culminated in the Second Republic, when several thousand workers’ associations flourished before being severely repressed. It was during the 1860s that the term “cooperative” came to be used to designate production and consumer cooperatives, which began to specialise. These organisations would form the basis of the cooperative movement, trade unions and workers’ parties (which were still largely intertwined at the time).

19In the absence of the state, in an economic order dominated by unbridled liberalism, they developed new forms of reciprocal solidarity. While they appeared to be hierarchically dominated (including a very repressive legal level), they were necessary to the system of accumulation in place in that they resolved the contradictions and conflicts that appeared in wage and competitive relationships. But these organisations remained highly polarised. It is still difficult to identify common rules within and between these different forms of organisation even if we can observe convergences in the differentiation channels. They proposed alternative solutions, promoting solidarity against the dominant principle of competition, in the “labour” channel–for example, by fighting against the emergence of the wage-labour system in the case of workers’ associations, or against pauperism in the case of charities–and in the “products-competition” channel–by promoting equitable forms of exchange or social protection. As far as the “governance” channel is concerned, with the exception of mutual aid societies and associations with a socialist tradition which were differentiated by initial forms of democratic governance, the other entities did not offer forms of governance that were different from other types of collective organisation. These channels of differentiation operated at the level of individual organisations, or within the attempt to structure meso-space specific to certain movements (such as the associationist movement). Still, those different entities and movements did not yet constitute a unified SSE space insofar as they did not share a common futurity–an ideological division that reflected deeper social divisions and struggles. On the one hand, the mutual aid societies and charities supported by the bourgeoisie and the Church maintained and strengthened their domination without questioning economic liberalism. On the other hand, the workers’ associations supported by the republicans and socialists sought to challenge this social and economic order, but were harshly repressed.

20The liberal compromise therefore remained very vulnerable and unstable insofar as these actors and organisations remained divided and dominated, with no real autonomy (including legal rights). Indeed, these initiatives were tolerated, often repressed, but not recognised by the liberal state, which did not favour their institutionalisation. Nevertheless, the associationist movement saw the first attempts to federate workers’ associations around a common principle of fraternity. The most important experiment was undoubtedly the federation project led by the feminist associationist Jeanne Deroin around the “Fraternal and Solidarity Association of all associations” in 1849 (Desroche, 1983). Internal divisions and, above all, repression prevented this project from seeing the light of day. This project embodied an initial desire to structure a meso-space for workers’ associations, but with the objective of building an alternative to liberal capitalism.

2.2. The republican compromise (1880–1970): the development of meso-spaces around the social economy “families”

21The different forms of collective organisation (cooperatives, mutual societies, associations) that were gradually to form the legal “families” (still divided over this period) underpinning the SSE space were only really institutionalised, through legal recognition in particular, in the late nineteenth century within the context of managed capitalism. During this period, the Third Republic (1870–1940) became firmly established, while the “Great Depression” (1873–1895) opened the way to the Second Industrial Revolution and the invention of the welfare state. In this “wage society” (Castel, 1995), cooperatives, mutual societies and charities became a relay and support for the economic and social interventionism of the state under the leadership of a republican elite that abandoned liberalism in favour of solidarism, thereby justifying the development of the social economy under the umbrella of the social state (Gueslin, 1998). The institutional hierarchies and social blocs were reversed. The republicans and socialists, supported in particular by an increasingly influential workers’ movement, succeeded through their involvement in the mutualist, cooperative and associative movements and in the development of the welfare state in establishing solidarity–based on reciprocity and redistribution–as a primary principle for organising society (as opposed to competition). And they did in fact encourage the recognition of social economy organisations which gradually federated at a meso-economic level around major status families and the idea of a social economy in something like its contemporary form.

22At the end of the nineteenth century, the notion of “social economy” was central to reformist movement debates (i.e. civil servants, elected officials, cooperators, mutualists, philanthropists, etc.), and although it still referred to a set of solutions to the social question, it tended to be restricted to voluntary associations inspired by the workers and philanthropists (Gide, 1905). During a conference in 1890, Charles Gide identified four main schools of the social economy–Le Play’s or the Christian school, the collectivist or socialist school, the liberal school and the “new” or “solidarity” school. One of the points at which these ideologies broke with the thought of the nineteenth century was the recognition of the role of the state and its link with the social economy. Of the three main ideological currents of that time, economic liberalism (Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, etc.) and social Catholicism (Albert de Mun, René de La Tour du Pin, etc.) continued to defend certain SSE organisations (charities, agricultural cooperation, etc.) and used them as a means of combating the welfare state. But some Catholic movements were also moving closer to the republicans and socialists with a more democratic conception of solidarity. The socialists, however, were increasingly influenced by collectivism to the detriment of associationism–and therefore in favour of state solidarity (redistribution) rather than associative solidarity (reciprocity)–and partly turned away from the cooperative and mutualist movement. Nevertheless, some socialists such as Benoit Malon, Jean Jaurès, Marcel Mauss and Albert Thomas, became involved and developed a real doctrine of socialist cooperation (Draperi, 2012). It was really solidarism, with thinkers like Charles Gide and Léon Bourgeois, which became the dominant ideology in the mutualist and cooperative movement and developed the doctrine of cooperativism around consumer cooperation. Solidarism rooted the social economy in a more democratic conception of reciprocal solidarity, while cooperativism was the first form of unification and autonomisation of one of the movements of the social economy. However, in the twentieth century, it was the question of the state’s role in the economy and the social sphere that dominated the debates and gradually marginalised the social economy, which was divided into major statutory “families”.

23Indeed, by creating specific legal statutes, legislation recognised cooperatives (1867, 1947), trade unions (1884), mutual societies (1898) and non-professional associations (1901) while also creating division among them. Trade unions and political parties became independent of the social economy, while organisations became specialised (whereas in the nineteenth century they had often been multifunctional, combining consumption, production and social protection) and reduced to the governance of common interests in order to strengthen the role of the state as the guardian of the public interest (Fretel, 2018) and to fight against the Church in the field of solidarity. This approach to the SSE, consisting in dividing them into large legal “families”, was to have a decisive influence on the French social economy model in the twentieth century. Mutuality and cooperation were the two main SSE movements at that time, which, like the CGT (Confédération générale du travail) trade union formed in 1895, were structured around large national federations.

24Thus, after the Charter of Mutuality (legislation 1 April 1898), which liberated mutual societies from political control and broadened their field of activity, this strongly divided movement was structured and unified in 1902 around the Fédération nationale de la mutualité française (FNMF). The mutual societies, initially hostile to the construction of a mandatory national social protection system (contrary to the principles of freedom and voluntarism), gradually became part of the social insurance system in 1928–1930 and then of the Sécurité Sociale after 1945, which relied on the skills of the mutualists (who became more professional) and gave them a central role in complementary social protection. From a few million members in the early twentieth century, mutual insurance had more than 20 million members by the end of the 1960s, with the rise of salaried employees and civil servants.

25Cooperatives also received strong legal and financial support from the state, which transformed them into real instruments of public policy wielded to overcome crises and modernise various economic sectors (consumption, agriculture, credit, etc.). However, the cooperative movement was itself very divided in sectoral, ideological and legal terms. Consumer cooperatives, supported by the workers’ and socialist movement, had several million members and were structured around the Fédération nationale des cooperatives de consommation (FNCC) in 1912 which dominated the rest of the cooperative movement (see box). In the less industrialised sectors (construction, etc.), there were few worker cooperatives and the ones that did exist were small. They were supported by the republican elites and organised in 1884 around the Chambre consultative des associations ouvrières de production (CCAOP) which became the Confédération Générale des sociétés cooperatives ouvrières de production (CGSCOP) in 1937. It had 40,000 cooperators in the 1960s.

Box 1: The transformation of consumer cooperatives into a meso-space

The consumer cooperative movement was a leading social movement (Furlough, 1991; Draperi, 2012) and spread worldwide (Hilson et al., 2017) between the 1880s and the 1980s. Like the mutualist movement, it formed a relatively autonomous and differentiated meso-space during this period. Cooperative and mutualist meso-spaces were embedded in the emerging SSE meso-space. Consumer cooperatives brought consumers together in a common association to collectively buy and share common goods of good quality (e.g. bread, coal) at a “fair price” and to collectively decide on the distribution of surpluses to members (rebates) or to social and cultural activities (mutual aid funds, libraries, sports clubs, holiday camps, etc.).

The first consumer cooperatives appeared in the mid-nineteenth century (such as the Commerce Véridique et Social in Lyon, France (1835–1838) or the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society near Manchester, UK, in 1844), but it was from the 1880s onwards that they experienced considerable growth in a context of economic crisis. In 1885, a first national congress of consumer cooperatives led to the creation of the first national federation (around 80 cooperative societies), L’Union, followed by another rival socialist federation created in 1895, the Bourse, which merged in 1912 to form the “National Federation of Consumer Cooperatives” (FNCC). This movement’s aim was to “replace the current competitive and capitalist regime with a regime in which production would be organised in the interests of the community of consumers and not that of profit” through “the collective appropriation of the means of exchange and production by the associated consumers”.a

In just a few decades, consumer cooperation grew from nearly one million cooperators (along with their families) on the eve of the First World War to over three million on the eve of the Second World War (Dreyfus, 2017). This growth was based on the FNCC’s “neo-cooperative” strategy of unification, concentration and modernisation around large departmental and then regional cooperatives federated at national level around different poles (federations, wholesalers, factories, banking, insurance, leisure societies, press and reviews). At the same time, the movement abandoned the ideal of forming a (macro) “cooperative republic” (theorised by Charles Gide in particular) and became no more than a (meso) “cooperative sector” within a managed economic regime to represent the interests of consumers and regulate markets more democratically.

Consumer cooperatives facilitated mass consumption in the Fordist compromise of the 1950s, but overall, the consumer society distanced cooperators from their ideal. This movement, which constituted a veritable meso-space within managed capitalism, did not survive the competitive shift and the rise of mass retailing in the 1980s.

a. Source : Statuts de la Fédération nationale des coopératives de consommation (FNCC), 1912.

26Agricultural cooperation developed under the influence of corporatist agricultural unionism and with the support of the state to address the crises and difficulties of the agricultural world (supply, disposal, sales). It grew from a few thousand cooperatives to more than 13,000 by the end of the 1940s. They became independent of agricultural trade unions and in 1966 united as the Confédération française de la coopération agricole (CFCA). The cooperative banks also received active support from the republican and Catholic elites, and from the state, to democratise credit. Cooperation had also developed, in a more marginal way in other sectors since the end of the nineteenth century with state support (maritime, school, housing and craft cooperatives, etc.). Cooperation was therefore very fragmented, but a framework law of 1947 codified their common principles. The Groupement national de la coopération (GNC), created in 1968, was a prelude to the unification of the various SSE families.

27The associations recognised by the 1901 legislation were undergoing significant development, but they remained very dispersed and poorly structured. There were two models of “charities”. Firstly, the religious and philanthropic charities and congregations–the main source of help for the poor (orphanages, Christian youth clubs, etc.)–and charities in the “medical-social” sector, which had grown up around the assistance laws (1893, 1905). Despite their mutual hostility, the charities received state support as the latter needed the religious charities to fill in the significant gaps in welfare policies (Brodiez-Dolino, 2018). During the two world wars, these charities were structured and professionalised with state encouragement and most of them came together in either the Office central des œuvres de bienfaisance (OCOB), first founded back in 1890 or in various federations. In 1947, these federations grouped together in the Union interfédérale des œuvres privées sanitaires et sociales (Uniopss), which remained close to the social Christians. Uniopss was sometimes referred to as the “private ministry of health and social affairs” and by the mid-1950s it included more than 12,000 associations caring for three million people.

28The second, more minority model concerned secular associations (republican or socialist), also in the health, social, education and leisure sectors, which expanded with the help of the public authorities (state, municipality) to counter the weight of the Church. The Ligue de l’enseignement, created in 1866, became the Confédération générale des œuvres laïques scolaires, postscolaires, d’éducation et de solidarité sociale in 1925, and at that time had more than 2.5 million members in 25,000 associations and 84 departmental federations. So, the associations remained fragmented and did not become a true associative movement until the 1970s, largely due to a shift towards the secularisation (and therefore independence from the Church) of charities.

29The legal division between “families”, that also reflected organisational and ideological differences, prevented any real unification of the social economy even if certain channels were moving closer together. In terms of the “labour” channel, these three movements were no longer seeking to provide an alternative to the wage-labour system in which they were embedded. In fact, during this period there was a significant process of professionalisation. These three families became differentiated more through the “products-competition” channel, by promoting, particularly for cooperatives and mutual societies, more democratic and solidarity-based access to mass consumption, credit, social protection, etc. One of the main channels of differentiation common to cooperatives and mutual societies (and to some extent secular charities, but not religious ones) was the “governance” channel. Under the impulsion of federations and the state, a set of rules for democratic governance was institutionalised, such as “dual quality” (users and members), equality of votes and the election of delegates–which anchored them in a republican conception of reciprocal solidarity. However, these processes of convergence on differentiation channels were really to come to fruition in the following period.

30However, we can speak of an institutionalised compromise (of legislation, political representation, funding and professionalisation) of a meso-order with regard to the mutualist, cooperative or associative federations insofar as they took their place in an institutional complementarity with the welfare state, which needed these movements to implement its economic and social policies. These federations abandoned the ambition to replace the state or capitalism and instead formed specific sectors. But the institutionalisation of social economy families within the welfare state also encouraged forms of hybridisation at the expense of their autonomy–the large cooperatives, mutual societies and charities functioned and behaved like quasi-public administrations and became, in a way, an “auxiliary engine of Fordist growth” (Demoustier, 2001). However, the neoliberal shift of the 1980s weakened this compromise with the welfare state and, faced with the return of market ideology, the divided families of the social economy were forced into asserting their unity and autonomy.

2.3. The neoliberal compromise (1970–present): the institutionalisation of the SSE as a unified and autonomous meso-space

31It was not until the 1970s that the SSE became a unified and autonomous sphere (Duverger, 2016). It was also during the 1970s/1980s that French capitalism shifted towards neoliberalism, whereby the state, supported by a new bourgeois bloc, played a key role in the implementation of competitive and financialised regulation of the economy (Amable, 2020, p. 171). On the one hand, this neoliberal shift weakened the historic compromises between the cooperative, mutualist and associative federations and the welfare state. The neoliberal turn was characterised by a massive attack on various forms of collective solidarity, and turned institutional hierarchies on their head by once again (as in the nineteenth century) giving priority to the principle of competition over the principle of solidarity, but now under the impetus of a state that was also described as neo-liberal. On the other hand, neoliberalism also promoted “civil society” and “entrepreneurial” initiatives that were seen as solutions to the “crisis” of the welfare state and the “new” social question (exclusion, etc.). And it was the associative movement in particular–mainly driven by the middle classes–that benefited from a real boom by being a part of the social state’s metamorphosis (Hély, 2009). In this new institutional configuration, the revival of the social economy has been a means for the three families (cooperative, mutualist and associative) to display a common identity, and to preserve a certain autonomy of their rules in a competitive environment (Vienney, 1994).

32Cooperators and mutualists first came together in the Comité national de liaison des activités mutualistes et coopératives (CNLAMC) in 1970, joined in 1975 by the associations that became the CNLAMCA. At the same time, the first Regional Groups of Cooperatives and Mutuals–the forerunners of the Regional Chambers of the SSE–began to structure these movements locally. The CNLAMCA adopted the Social Economy Charter (1980), which brought about a compromise between these three historical families around a few rules common to “social economy companies”: e.g. democratic governance, solidarity and equality between members, freedom of membership, collective ownership, surpluses reinvested in the project, projects in the service of the people. This Charter affirms a democratic conception of reciprocal solidarity inherited from the cooperative and mutualist movement in the republican compromise, while at the same time reflecting an entrepreneurial turn characteristic of neo-liberalism. The renewal of the social economy was also accompanied by a corpus of specific doctrines that has contributed to the unification and autonomisation of the social economy. In the 1980s, thinkers from the cooperative movement like Jacques Moreau and Henri Desroche were involved in resurrecting and theorising the notion of “social economy” (echoing Charles Gide)–this term being preferred to the terminology “non-profit” or “third sector”–with a view to integrating cooperatives and mutual insurances into the social economy sector (Desroche, 1983).

33At the same time, the formation of an institutionalised compromise around the social economy was made possible by the election of a left-wing government (and in particular the “Second Left” represented by Michel Rocard) in 1981, which led to the creation of an inter-ministerial agency, the Délégation interministérielle à l’Économie Sociale (Dies), followed by the first legislation on the social economy (1983), which included cooperatives, mutual societies and “managerial” associations within its scope. This institutional recognition of the social economy also confirms a vision of the social economy as a sector or meso-space within the “market economy” (and marginalises the aspirations of “alternative” or “self-management” movements for a more global transformation of capitalism). However, as soon as the austerity programme began in 1983, the social economy became a part of the neoliberal public policy framework and marked the return of a more philanthropic (and entrepreneurial) conception of solidarity, in which “associative enterprises” (and later social enterprises) were to develop to deal with the excesses (poverty, inequality) of the new capitalist system without calling it into question. This vision was defended in particular by third-sector theorists such as the French and European senior civil servants Jacques Delors and François Bloch-Lainé.

34Faced with the institutionalisation and banalisation of the social economy, or third sector, a new “solidarity economy” movement emerged in the 1990s. The solidarity economy has been promoted by alternative economy movements such as the Agence de liaison pour le développement de l’économie alternative (ALDEA, created in 1981), which joined the Réseau de l’économie alternative et solidaire (REAS) in 1992. In 2002, REAS became the Mouvement pour l’économie Solidaire (MES). The concept of the “solidarity economy” was also theorised by Bernard Eme and Jean Louis Laville, two sociologists from the Centre for Research and Information on Democracy and Autonomy (CRIDA) who put forward new ideas on local services, integration through economic activity and associative enterprises. The solidarity economy also underwent rapid institutionalisation from the 1990s onwards with the rise of the ecologist party and the arrival of the State Secretariat of the Solidarity Economy in 2000. As its name suggests, the solidarity economy reaffirms the importance of the principle of solidarity and in particular of a more egalitarian reciprocal solidarity. Alain Lipietz, an economist and Member of the European Parliament for the Green Party in charge of a 2001 report on the SSE, summarised the differences between these three branches as follows:

35The third sector is defined by ‘What do we do?’, which implies the existence of a sector defined by its own regulation mode, including fiscal regulation. The social economy is defined by ‘How, under what status and what internal organisational norms do we do it?’ The solidarity economy is defined by ‘In the name of what do we do it?’, i.e., the meaning given to the economic activity, its logic, the value system of its actors and therefore the management criteria of their institutions (Lipietz, 2001, p. 30-31).

36Despite their divergences, these three movements contributed to the processes of autonomisation and differentiation–in particular, by building a common futurity–of what was to become the SSE under this new capitalist regime. Processes that were institutionalised on a meso-level insofar as none of these movements claimed to represent a global alternative. Although the social economy and the solidarity economy were initially divided, they gradually converged. Subsequently, the idea of framework legislation for the social and solidarity economy began to gain ground and gave rise to various debates between the right-wing and the left-wing parties and coalitions, culminating in the 2014 Social and Solidarity Economy Law which enshrined this compromise between social economy and solidarity economy movements (Duverger, 2016). This SSE legislation was inclusive in the sense that it reaffirmed major common principles and encompassed the traditional statutes of the social economy (association, cooperative, mutual). It also recognised the various initiatives of the solidarity economy (social money, etc.) and opened the door to foundations and social entrepreneurship (Hiez, 2014). This compromise legislation reflects the tension between two conceptions of reciprocal solidarity. An egalitarian conception arising from the social economy and solidarity economy movements, and a more inegalitarian conception driven by social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship, which emerged in Anglo-Saxon countries in the 1990s under the influence of business schools and foundations, spread and took shape in France in the 2010s. But it was really with the election of Emmanuel Macron in 2017 that social entrepreneurship became institutionalised at the highest echelons of the state. For all that, even if it destabilised it, it did not call into question the SSE compromise inherited from the 2014 legislation.

37These different ideological and political changes surrounding the SSE also reflected the organisational changes in the SSE, and, above all, new hierarchies between organisational movements and models. Since the 1980s, the old cooperative and mutualist models have been in decline, while associations, social enterprises and foundations have been booming. These models seem more suited to the neoliberal capitalist regime, but they also reflect the return of a less egalitarian–more philanthropic–vision of solidarity.

38In the face of growing competition from large capitalist groups, some organisational forms such as consumer cooperatives were forced to close, while others such as mutual societies (more than 50 % of French people are covered by a mutual society for complementary health care), cooperative and mutual banks (more than 27 million members) or agricultural cooperatives (which include 75 % of farmers) were undergoing neoliberal normalisation. These organisations found themselves in sectors where new European and French regulations were accentuating competition, financialisation and concentration to the detriment of their mutual and cooperative specificities (erosion of membership, loss of local roots, capitalist spin-offs) and preferring forms of hybridisation with capitalist models. None of these movements form a meso-space as in the republican compromise. Nevertheless, today, there are new initiatives in solidarity-based finance or community mutual insurance which illustrate the SSE’s capacity for social innovation in these sectors. Equally, worker cooperatives, although still marginal, has been developing continuously since the 1980s, with the emergence of new company forms such as business and employment cooperatives (CAE) or cooperative societies of collective interest (SCIC).

39However, the most significant feature of this period was the upsurge in the number of associations, which became a highly structured movement (represented by Le Mouvement Associatif (LMA), from the Conférence permanente des coordinations associative (CPCA) created in 1992), and more particularly the rise in associative employment and “associative enterprises” now dominant in the SSE. What were initially charities and secular associations became professionalised and institutionalised over time by the social state and are now part of the public sector and public policies (social, environmental, sport, culture, etc.). This associative workforce is sometimes considered to be a “fourth public service” (Hely, 2009). The current changes in the way associations are financed, with a fall in public subsidies, the widespread use of public contracts, and the increasing privatisation of resources through user participation, are encouraging the logic of commodification, financialisation and concentration. Nevertheless, the associative sector remains highly diverse; there are over 1.5 million active associations, but only 10% of them are employers, and represent more than 1.8 million associative employees. Recent years have seen increasing polarisation, with a proliferation of small voluntary associations taking part in local life, a decline in medium-sized associations, and a concentration around a few large associations responsible for implementing public policies and which attract almost all public and private funding (Prouteau & Tchernonog, 2023). These large associations are undergoing a process of trivialisation similar to that of the large mutual societies and cooperatives.

  • 7 These remain marginal; just over 300 commercial companies applied for this approval in 2020.

40Entities with a new legal status such as foundations have been created (1987 Act) and take different forms such as company endowments, public utility endowments, funds. The substantial growth of endowment funds, which have more than doubled in less than 20 years, reflects the powerful comeback of philanthropy–with the active support (legal, taxation, etc.) of the state–in the neoliberal SSE compromise. Although endowment funds are based on the principles of non-profit and of public interest, they have no democratic governance, which calls into question their presence in the SSE. This revival of philanthropy in the SSE should also be seen in the context of the rise of social enterprise at international, European and national levels. But in France, with the exception of the Entreprise solidaire d’utilité sociale (ESUS) approvals, social enterprise has no real institutional existence7 and reflects more of an entrepreneurial shift in the SSE–particularly in the associative sphere–than anything else (Glémain & Richez-Battesti, 2018). However, social enterprises also run the risk of weakening the collective, non-lucrative and democratic dimensions of the SSE and of blurring the boundaries with capitalist companies which now also claim to have a social mission in the context of corporate social responsibility (CSR) or the French Pact legislation (Bidet, Filippi & Richez-Battesti, 2019). The proliferation of investment and social impact measurement within the SSE in recent years is part of the same trend (Jany-Catrice & Studer, 2021) and serves to strengthen the social enterprise model, while at the same time weakening the differentiation between SSE organisations and capitalist enterprises. In view of these plural dynamics between the different organisational forms of SSEs, we can question the channels of differentiation of this space. At first sight, the labour channel seems rather marginal insofar as the forms of employment and work are fairly similar to the rest of the economy, and that, with the exception of certain movements such as CAEs, the SSE does not set out to constitute an alternative. However, the structuring of an employer and employee trade unionism specific to this space can now contribute to its unification and autonomisation. As regards the products-competition channel, despite the defence of a more solidarity-based approach and the affirmation of the not-for-profit principle, the commoditisation processes affecting all organisations, whether cooperatives, associations or mutuals, also tend to reduce the differentiation of this channel. In the end, it is the channel of democratic governance, affirmed in both the 1980 Charter and the SSE Act, that appears to be the main factor unifying and differentiating the SSE. But it is also a channel that appears to be challenged today by certain movements and organisations stemming from social entrepreneurship and philanthropy. More generally, it is really the futurity channel, which is materialised at both a symbolic and legislative level, that appears to be the main driving force behind the differentiation and autonomisation of the SSE.


41For some years now, the SSE has been presented in France, as well as internationally, as a relatively specific economic space within capitalism, whose organisations, operating according to the principle of reciprocal solidarity which is codified in the (legal) rules of non-profit making, democratic governance, etc.–could offer alternative solutions in the context of social and ecological transition. Given that the SSE is not a macroeconomic regime, a meso-economic reading can help us to understand how this social space has gradually managed, relatively at least, to unify, differentiate and distance itself from the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. In historical terms, the SSE appears to be a recent category, even though the practices, ideas and organisations–such as mutual aid societies, worker cooperatives and charities–that feed it today began to emerge in the early nineteenth century confronting economic liberalism. But these rules, organisations and movements were still little recognised and too divided to form an autonomous space during the “liberal compromise”. We have seen how actors and organisations gradually grouped together around large federations and legal statuses (cooperatives, mutual societies, associations) at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, forming the first institutionalised meso-spaces and complementing the welfare state and managed capitalism without extending beyond them. But these meso-sectoral spaces, formed around a legal status, did not at the time constitute a unified entity, even though this “republican compromise” was a key period in the institutionalisation of the rules and organisations that were to make up the future SSE. It was only from the 1970s onwards that these different families asserted a common identity around the social economy in order to preserve their specificities in a capitalist system that was undergoing major changes as it moved towards the neoliberal turn. Extending its scope to include the solidarity economy and now social entrepreneurship, a range of legislation and theories have affirmed the SSE during the “neoliberal compromise” as a relatively differentiated and autonomous meso-space within French capitalism.

42Using the grid of differentiation channels and the critical function they can exercise against capitalist logic (Bodet & Lamarche, 2020), we have shown that while the “work” and “product-competition” channels may at one time have been important operators in homogenising and differentiating the SSE meso-space, it is now the “governance” channel based on democratic rules that appears to be the central differentiation channel. Above all, it is the “futurity” channel that has played a decisive role in the construction of a common identity for the SSE and of a space that is relatively differentiated and autonomous–at least symbolically–from other spaces or from capitalist accumulation. Lastly, it should be noted that this periodisation and these processes of constructing a meso-space are part of the French institutional context, with its own specific dynamics (economic, political, legal, etc.) with regard to the variety of capitalism. However, a comparative approach to other countries and the role of international integration could provide further insights into the processes of SSE institutionalisation as a meso-space in France, in other countries and internationally in the same way as the SSE is now being structured in major international institutions (such as the ILO, the UN).

  • 8 Recent positions testify to this, such as the Manifesto “For a united, clear and conquering SSE” ( (...)

43This article also invites us to look at meso-spaces, in this case the SSE, as social-historical constructions produced by social actors situated in power relationships between social and political blocs–to understand the intention of certain actors in the construction of the SSE as a meso-space, we can talk about institutional or political work (Smith, 2019; Ansaloni et al., 2020)–and which form part of institutional complementarities and hierarchies that evolve over time in the succession of capitalist regimes of accumulation. In particular, we have highlighted the ambivalent role of the state, which was able to repress the emergence and autonomisation of the SSE in the nineteenth century, to recognise it while controlling and dividing the SSE through sectoral meso-spaces in the twentieth century, or today to favour the institutionalisation of the SSE as an autonomous and differentiated meso-space while at the same time making it part of the neoliberal capitalist dynamic. In this regard, we have pointed out the risks that threaten the SSE compromise that has been forged over the last few decades, but which became more visible in France in the 2010s with the rise of social entrepreneurship and a new philanthropy, and the capacity to maintain a meso-space that is still autonomous and differentiated from the neoliberal state and the dynamics of capitalist accumulation. Paradoxically, however, this is also what could strengthen it, both nationally and internationally. In fact, we have recently seen a significant mobilisation of the historical actors of the SSE to reaffirm a common identity–around a democratic conception of reciprocal solidarity as opposed to a more philanthropic conception–and who emphasise the importance of defending the SSE as a meso-space of resistance but also of transformation,8 with the objective of “making the SSE the standard for the future economy” (Saddier, 2022). The election on 10 April 2024 of Benoît Hamon, the former Socialist minister who initiated the SSE Act in 2014, to the presidency of ESS France–the organisation for consultation and representation of the SSE as a space–bears witness to a desire to reaffirm politically the SSE compromise that has been forged over the last few decades.

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1 The term “SSE”, now used by international institutions, is a category that was historically developed in France, even though the terms “social economy” and “solidarity economy” can be found in other countries with Latin traditions, particularly in Europe and Latin America. In other countries, particularly in the English-speaking world, the terms “third sector”, “voluntary sector”, etc. are used, with more or less similar definitions.

2 International Labour Conference, 110th Session, 2022, Resolution concerning decent work and the social and solidarity economy, 10 June 2022. This definition was used as the basis for the resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly ‘Promoting the Social and Solidarity Economy for Sustainable Development’, 25 April 2023.

3 Our translation.

4 Our historical research has focused in particular on in-depth case studies of production and consumer cooperatives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in northern France, as well as on environmental associations in more recent times. Research at more territorial and sectoral levels, as well as this periodisation work, has enabled us to go beyond these specific cases to illustrate and account for more general regularities in the SSE.

5 In summary, the “futurity” channel refers to the construction of a common representation of the future; the “labour” channel refers to the production process, the rules of work and employment; the “products-competition” channel refers to products or services, the rules of exchange; the “governance” channel refers to power relationships, the rules of ownership and decision-making. This article will not deal with the “environment” channel, which refers more to the relation to resources and nature.

7 These remain marginal; just over 300 commercial companies applied for this approval in 2020.

8 Recent positions testify to this, such as the Manifesto “For a united, clear and conquering SSE” (15 March 2023), or the adoption by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly of a resolution on the promotion of the SSE (18 April 2023).

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Titre Figure 1. Periodisation of compromises in the SSE meso-space
Crédits Source: author (2024)
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Sylvain Celle, « The institutionalisation of the social and solidarity economy in France as a meso-space »Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 36 | 1er semestre|Spring 2024, mis en ligne le 25 juin 2024, consulté le 20 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sylvain Celle

Maître de conférences en économie, Universite Lumiere Lyon2, Ens de Lyon, CNRS, Sciences Po Lyon, Triangle, UMR 5206.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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