While neoliberalism’s social consequences have been enough to question its merit as an economic system, it could always depend on its one big strength: economic growth. However, years of slow growth, recurring financial crises, and market failures have resulted in scepticism that attacks the system’s foundational promise. As a result, there is a community of “new economic thinking” slowly entering the mainstream. In our publication Turning the Tide — Landscape analysis of an emergent economic movement in Europe, we map the 100+ organisations in Europe that work tirelessly to design and deliver a new economic system. To shed light more broadly on the state of new economic thinking, we conducted interviews with members of this community in four different countries. Here, we dive into France.
By Julia Jousilahti
In France, the field of new economic thinking can be described as small, dispersed, and mostly issue-oriented. The country has a rich intellectual life with public intellectuals, debates, conferences, and small magazines — including on topics around the economy. However, the debates tend to revolve around thematics described as “old left” by one interviewee, emphasising social justice and solidarity — with more and more green transition issues brought to discussions too. However, actors working on holistic, system-level changes in the economic system are still rare.
Organisations and networks
The field of new economic thinking in France consists of academic organisations and networks (such as Research and Degrowth or Association Française d’Economie Politique AFEP) and a few think tanks (such as the Veblen Institute, Fondation Nicolas Hulot, the Shift Project, and the Foundation for Political Ecology.) Some public intellectuals such as Alain Grandjean (president of Fondation Nicolas Hulot) or Dominique Méda (professor of sociology at IRISSO) push for the need to radically redefine economic thought.
The NGO space is populated by sectoral campaigning organisations located in the capital (like Réseau Action Climat, Greenpeace, France Nature Environnement ou Humanité & Biodiversité), with small local actors fighting for specific issues in the terrain. Amongst the issue-oriented actors, organisations focusing on environment and sustainability matters are heavily emphasised.
The role of the media
An interesting case in the European media landscape is the French monthly magazine and website Alternatives Economiques. The magazine was born in 1980 to counter neoliberal politics and the infamous “there is no alternative” approach. The magazine quickly found its audiences and is today a well-established media outlet with 700,000 monthly readers. Politically independent, the magazine is not advocating for a specific agenda but wants to enrich the debate on economics by bringing to the discussion perspectives that differ from mainstream thinking.
A more recent addition to alternative media outlets is the website The Other Economy, launched by Alain Grandjean and his former colleague Marion Cohen. The Other Economy is a platform that brings together knowledge and shares ideas on how the current economic system should be transformed.
In addition, France has a dynamic cooperative movement that presents an alternative way of organising corporate ownership. 70% of retail banking and 40% of France’s food industry is run in cooperatives. Cooperatives employ 1.3 million people. This movement establishes its presence through foundations that support events and some think tank activities.
No funding for systemic transformation
The interviewees saw the funding structures as a core reason for the small number and detachment of actors working on systemic change of the economic system. The funding is mostly sector-based, and there is no funding for systemic, cross-sectoral vision-building. A part of the problem is that the French law makes opening a foundation for non-private corporations very difficult. For this reason, many smaller funders allocate their resources to Fondation de France, an umbrella organisation that shelters almost 900 charities, which in turn funds projects in different sectors of the society. This funding structure limits individual funders’ possibilities to steer funding to specific causes, even if there was interest in doing so.
Also, unlike in e.g. Germany, France has no structural funding for political think tanks, which has kept the field weak. In recent years, this has been compensated to some extent by international foundations setting up offices and programs in France. For instance, the Paris office of the European Climate Foundation plays an important role in this regard, both in terms of funding and as convenor for the French NGOs and think tanks.
Despite its heterodox superstars, academia remains mainstream
Whereas the field lacks resources, there is intellectual vitality in the space of new economic thinking amongst its practitioners. As one interviewee summarised, “we don’t have money but we have ideas”, paraphrasing the former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. This perception is embodied through international superstars like Thomas Piketty or Nobel-prize winner Esther Duflo, who have exposed the flaws of the neoliberal economic system with the means of empirical economics. The exchange of ideas is active also in several networks and frequent public events, but as one interviewee pointed out, the debate on new economic thinking is dispersed and lacks a general vision of what the “new” should look like.
Furthermore, the vital intellectual debate has not turned into post-neoliberal politics — even though neoliberal ideas never broke through in politics in the same force as in the United Kingdom and post-Keynesianism has remained relatively strong. There was a shared agreement amongst the interviewees, that general public discourse and policymaking in France still very much happen within the neoliberal cadre. One reason behind this was seen to be that in general, heterodox economics is still very weak in French academia. As one interviewee noted, there is “no funding, no journals and no jobs” for researchers willing to practice non-mainstream economics in France. This reproduces the economic dogmas and offers no alternatives to policymakers. However, there seems to be a growing demand amongst students for more diverse economics education that better addresses especially ecological crises — which can further fuel the movement to transform the prevailing economic paradigm.
This article was written for Demos Helsinki’s landscape analysis of new economic thinking in Europe. It has been slightly edited for style and to provide enough context as a standalone piece.
Want to read about the state of new economic thinking in other countries?
- New economic thinking in Greece — “Pregnant” with promise
- New economic thinking in Finland — Action on the fringes
- New economic thinking in the UK — A curious paradox
Feature Image: Florian Wehde / Unsplash