The Evolution of Co-operative Thought in France

The Evolution of Co-operative Thought in France

by Andre Chomel

The evolution of co-operative thought is obviously a very topical subject.
The history of co-operation, in France and in the world, is in fact marked
by a constant coming and going between ideas and actions.

I propose to discuss this history in three stages:

>From Gide to Fauquet

Co-operative thought after World War I is essentially based on the School
of Nimes and Charles Gide.  The ideology of the primacy of the consumer
prevailed, and found a doctrinal expression in the "Three-stage Programme"
which was certainly (Chomel suggests indeed?) not new--it was formulated by
Gide in 1889 - but which proposed a perspective: the integral
co-operativisation of the economy based on consumer co-operation,
controlling during a second phase the industrial production of necessary
consumer goods, and then in a third phase those of agriculture.  This theme
was developed notably by Ernest Poisson and especially by Bernard Lavergne.

But for Charles Gide, this requestioning of his 1889 proposition came about
after 1926 on the occasion of his course at the College de France.  The
theme of the Co-operative Republic nevertheless remained prominent for many
more years, and even more so did the theme of the primacy of consumer
co-operation. Their questioning would be for a whole generation of
believers a shock comparable to the collapse of "real socialism" a
half-century later.

A turning point during this period came with the death of Charles Gide in
1932 and the bankruptcy of the Banque des Cooperatives in 1934.  There
appeared to be a diversification of the co-operative movement, rather than
a hegemony of consumer co-operatives: credit, agricultural, and production
co-operatives were the witnesses.  It would be left to Georges Fauquet in
1935, while in charge of the ILO's Co-operative Branch, to propose a
theoretical approach for this development:  the ambitious perspective of
the Co-operative Republic was replaced by the more modest idea of a
specific co-operative sector, inserted in the modern economy between the
public sector and the capitalist sector: a plural co-operative sector whose
sub-sectors included small units of household, artisanal, and agricultural

The thinking of Fauquet could be found throughout the post-war years.  One
could also find (although not in the same central position) the proposition
illustrated and defended by Bernard Lavergne about co-operative utilities,
whereby it was necessary to apply the systems of co-operative management,
involving the users, to public services.

However, the paranthesis of the Second World War would delay until a later
date the lively debates arising from these propositions.

Transformation since World War II

During the first period, until around the end of the 1960s, there was an
important, diversified co-operative development within an economy which was
gradually freeing itself from "dirigisme".  Consumer co-operatives still
held first place, but agricultural and credit co-operatives were moving
into significant positions in their markets, while new forms of
co-operation were developing.

The following period, during the 1970s and 80s, witnessed structural
changes:  a shift in the centre of gravity away from consumer
co-operatives--which had almost disappeared by the end of this
period--towards financial co-operatives and co-operatives of individual
entrepreneurs, where retail traders occupied a non-negligeable place.  Ever
since, the French co-operative sector has been characterised by the great
diversity of its components.  It was also during the 70s that the
co-operative sector, represented through the Groupement National de la
Cooperation (GNC), came together with mutual societies, insurance mutuals,
and management associations within a Liaison Committee.

Their common problems were, first and foremost, problems of capital.  Some
formed groups that created limited companies with private investors; others
sought to open their capital to non-co-operative members. By the middle of
the 80s it was obvious that these adjustments had thrown into question the
whole basis of the Co-operative Law of 1947, and that a complete reworking
was necessary.  The Law of 1992, following a declaration of principles by
the GNC, defined the legal framework of the undertakings which could be
concluded between co-operative members and investor-members, with respect
to division of both power and profit.

In light of the considerable transformations during this half-century, what
can one say about the traditional "coming and going" between co-operative
ideas and actions?  Or how has co-operative thought anticipated, oriented
or interpreted these changes?

>From Co-op Sector to Social Economy

During the first 15 years, until around 1960, Fauquet's bomb of 1935 hardly
seemed to have dented the doctrine inherited from Charles Gide, which was
defended with enthusiasm and tenacity by two eminent professors, Bernard
Lavergne and Georges Lasserre.

The most coherent presentation of this doctrine came from Bernard Lavergne:
by distributing profit among the people (to the extent that they were
members), consumer co-operatives "socialised" profits and could thereby
claimed to be an expression of the general interest.

It was in 1960, with the publication of Claude Vienney's thesis "Towards an
economic analysis of the co-operative sector", based on the approach of
Georges Fauquet, that there appeared a rupture within co-operative
thinking.  It was because of the common characteristics of co-operative
organisations that Fauquet had identified a distinct Co-operative Sector.
"It is because they are formed by a group of persons through an enterprise
that co-operatives find their place in activities where interpersonal
relations are more important than the domination of capital", wrote Claude

Taking Fauquet's analysis further, Cl. Vienney has developed a
socio-economic approach, explaining how co-operatives are formed from the
basis of the relationship between their activities and their membership.
In particular, he brings out the dynamics involved in the changing role of
their activities in the economy, in the modification of their rules and in
the impact of these factors on the personality of the protagonists.

The relevance of Fauquet's model was verified once again on the occasion of
the re-emergence in France of the concept of Social Economy, for which his
model provided a theoretical basis:  this coming together was a natural
step in the opening of the Sector, defined by Fauquet, to organisations
which had the necessary identifying characteristics that he had defined.

However, Fauquet is less well known in France than might be supposed, and
much less frequently quoted than Charles Gide or even Charles Fourier.  To
some extent, Claude Vienney also shares this lack of recognition despite
his central place in contemporary French thinking on co-operatives where he
represents the socio-economic school which is its main feature and to which
Ch. Gide also belongs.

In this connection, it is legitimate to question what appears to be the
deliberate separation that can be perceived between this school and the
neoclassical American approach which, in particular, seeks to shed light on
the conditions in which Third Sector organisations intervene on the market
economy.  A debate between the two schools - which has scarcely taken place
- would perhaps meet the expectations sometimes expressed in France for
more strictly economic analyses of co-operative sectors.

French co-operative thought during the second half of the century is, for
the most part, inserted  between these two poles: Fauquet and Gide.  At
least, if one follows Henri Desroche in his profound empathy for the old
master.  He had synthesised the contributions by distinguishing his three
"creativities":  co-operative, social, and university creativities.  This
trilogy can equally be regarded as an approximation to evoke the work of
Desroche and also its closeness to that of Gide.

Other than this preliminary remark, one must admit that his work is so
monumental and diverse that it still defies attempts to account for its
sources and even to isolate that which concerns strictly co-operative
thought.  A profound unity links the explorations of his "quadruple
sociology": religions, co-operatives, developments, and education.

Perhaps his work, with respect to co-operatives, is an immense effort in
multiple dimensions, sometimes rather discouraged, to free this
co-operative world from its lack of vivacity (Chomel suggests heaviness).
This is no doubt why he came back to reinvent the term Social Economy, at
the beginning of the 1970s, in order to identify the grouping of
co-operatives, mutuals, and associations.  His approach, which gave a
meaning to this Social Economy, was apparently inspired by this ambition.

New Directions

Henri Desroches was perhaps, after Charles Gide, Bernard Lavergne or
Georges Lasserre, one of the last masters whose thinking is not bound
within the confines of a single discipline and who proposes a global
vision.  There seems to be a trend to specialise in contemporary issues
despite the transdisciplinary nature of Social Economy as a science.  It
must also be pointed out that intellectual study and co-operative research
are firmly anchored in Social Economy.

A symposium organised on the initiative of the Revue des Etudes
Cooperatives Mutualistes et Associatives (RECMA) in 1992  attempted to draw
up an inventory of this research which is somewhat scattered and sometimes
hard to locate.  It would be wrong for this overview of co-operative
thinking to disregard that research, although it consists of critical
comments on what has been carried out rather than theoretical or doctrinal
proposals; a distinction can be made between research for (at the request
of) organisations, and that carried out on organisations.

An example is provided by the work of the Association pour le Developpement
de la Documentation sur l'Economie Sociale (ADDES) over a 10-year period
with an analysis and descriptions - often illustrated by figures - of
organisations of Social Economy; thanks to ADDES, France is ahead of most
other countries in this field.  ADDES is a club of research workers
(including Cl. Vienney, Ph. Kaminski, Ph. Nicolas, J.E. Chapron, J.P.
Dumont and others) led by Mrs. Edith Archambault who succeeded Andre
Chadeau and supported by the Co-operative Credit Foundation.

At a somewhat different level, mention may be made of the studies into what
Henri Desroche called "emergent" rather than "in situ" Social Economy.
This group includes the important research co-ordinated by J.L. Laville
which aims in particular to define and identify the innovative types of
co-operation required if proximity services are to meet the new needs of
the underprivileged: hence the proposal for solidarity economy capable of
combining the in-puts of recipients, volunteers, public aid and commercial

There is some demand from organisations for one specific field - that of
historical background.  On a general level, mention must be made of the
outstanding work of Andre Gueslin (Paris 1987) whose "L'invention de
l'Economie sociale - le XIXe siecle francais" provides the historical
background shedding light on contemporary problems.  Henri Desroches has
also authored many works, most recently "Histoires d'Economies sociales"
(Paris 1991) which attempts, in his own terms, to overcome the "escheat" of
the "incomparable historical heritage" of French Social Economy.

Any number of examples could be given, but it is worth looking into the
particular well-spring of co-operative thinking which has on occasion been
provided by co-operative officials or business managers.  In this field,
the recent book entitled "L'Economie sociale face a l'ultraliberalisme" by
Jacques Moreau, former President of the Credit Cooperatif, is somewhat of
an exception.  In his proposals, the author takes up the approach of B.
Lavergne for "the co-operativization of the State".  But J. Moreau believes
that, over and above the development of social economy enterprises, it is
necessary to promote within very diverse public and private organisations
the practice of sharing the responsibilities of social economy.

A Debate Which Never Occurred

One would have thought that the rather fundamental reform of the
co-operative rules which occurred in 1992 with the rewriting of the 1947
legislation would have given rise, in this country with such a rich and
sometimes passionate doctrinal and theoretical tradition, if not to a great
debate at least to a consultation of those who are today known as
researchers.  This was not at all the case, unlike that which occurred at
the same time, on the same subject, in Quebec, at the initiative of the
Conseil de la Cooperation du Quebec.  One will never know, therefore, if
the positions could have been modified.

A recent study of the evolution of the principles and rules since 1945 (by
A. Chomel and Cl. Vionney) concludes that the questioning of the principle
of "double quality" constitutes a real change in organisational structure.
But in the coming and going between ideas and happenings--which hardly took
place!--the last word was with the practitioners, for whom co-operative
identity remained assured as long as the participating members maintained
the majority control of the enterprise (notwithstanding the fragility of
this limit!).


What are the perspectives for co-operative thought in France?  The pressure
of the market, the obsessive striving for efficiency, a generation of
managers without much interest in debating ideas and principles--this
hardly leads to optimism, and reminds one of Laidlaw's denunciation of the
"ideological crisis" of co-operation during the 1980s.

Some of the tendencies which we have observed would rather suggest that we
are on the way towards a substantial change, and not at all necessarily a
negative one, in the style of the relation between co-operative thought and

The widening of perspective resulting from the alliance within the Social
Economy, the growing and necessary role within this Social Economy of the
innumerable, decentralised, entrepreneurial initiatives which the new
economic and social situation demands, and the more and more frequent
attention given by researchers to this "emerging" Social Economy so dear to
Henri Desroche--would they not constitute the beginning of this new style?
And so--rather than a new Gide--would not a new inter-universitary
co-operation be necessary in order to bring coherence to these approaches?


(Andre Chomel was Editor of la Revue des Etudes Cooperatives from 1984 to
1994.  This is an abridged version of his original article, translated from
the French.)