The French Nonprofit Sector

A Literature Review


This article deals with the literature on the French nonprofit sector (NPS). A preliminary part is devoted to presenting and discussing the characteristics that shape the approaches to this sector in France. We stress the strong influence of legal categories on the sector’s definition and, in this context, the importance of the status inherited from the 1901 Act on contracts of association. This raises a problem for a more analytical approach to the sector, because the diversity of the nonprofit organizations (NPOs) regulated under this Act risks being overshadowed. In this first part, we also underline the primacy accorded in France to the concept of the social economy, which has today become the social and solidarity economy (SSE), over that of the nonprofit sector.
In the second part, the article outlines some landmarks in the history of the French NPS. French NPOs were for many years objects of suspicion, arbitrariness and repression on the part of the public authorities and this persisted until the 1901 legislation on contracts of association was enacted. However, this hostile context did not prevent the sector from having a richer existence than is sometimes admitted.
This literature review also focuses on empirical studies of the sector, placing a particular emphasis on the more recent ones. These French studies basically adopt two types of approach. The first is concerned essentially with the NPOs and focuses its attention on their economic importance, whether measured in terms of financial resources, employment, or, less frequently, added value. The second approach investigates the kinds of individual participation the sector engenders by examining the various forms it takes, such as membership of NPOs or voluntary work.
This review ends with the analysis of the challenges that NPS faces in a context characterized by the increasing constraints on public funding, changes in the nature of such funding with a substitution of contracts for subsidies, an increased competition among NPOs as well as between NPOs and for-profit enterprises. The article concludes that, despite the advances in research on the French NPS, some aspects—like formal volunteering and the role of voluntary associations—are still understudied, while others—like informal groups and informal volunteering—are almost totally ignored.
No Access


EUR €70.00USD $84.00

Biographical Note

Laura Nirello is postdoctoral researcher at Centre Lillois d’Etudes et de Recherches Sociologiques et Economiques—CLERSE (Lille Sociological and Economic Studies and Research Centre) and at the Direction de la Recherche, des Etudes, de l’Evaluation et des Statistiques—DREES (Directorate of Research, Studies, Evaluation, and Statistics), a department of the French Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. Email: Lionel Prouteau is Emeritus Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Nantes. He is member of the Laboratoire d’économie et de management de Nantes-Atlantique—LEMNA (Nantes-Atlantique Economics and Management Research Laboratory). Email:

Table of contents

Editor’s Introduction

Author Biographies

The French Nonprofit Sector: A Literature Review
 1 The Importance of the Legal Approach to Defining French NPOs
 2 The French NPS: A Belated Freedom
 3 Empirical Approaches to the French NPS
 4 What Prospects for the French NPS?  Conclusion


Anyone interested in the field of Voluntaristics worldwide, academics and researchers in anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, and psychology, and those interested in Area studies, the social professions, and history.


Collection Information