Philanthropy and the State in France

INTRODUCTION: Philanthropies and State Prestige in France, 19th-20th Centuries

Editors’ Note: Nicolas Duvoux launches HistPhil’s forum on Philanthropy and the State in France. De-centering U.S. exceptionalism in the history of philanthropy, this forum provides a historical and present-day context to philanthropy in France. For HistPhil readers, this collection of essays furthermore provides an opportunity to analyze vital questions at the heart of civic life: What has been (and relatedly, what should be) the relationship of the State to civil society, and more specifically to philanthropy and charity? Below, Duvoux introduces these essays, originally published in French as part of a special issue of Genèses. These posts have been translated to English by Anne Monier, who is also contributing an essay to the forum.   

This HistPhil forum on philanthropy and the State in France introduces—for the first time to an English-speaking audience—a special issue on the topic published in the French-language journal, Genèses, in 2017. Gathering recent works in sociology, history and political science, this issue of Genèses examined the relationship between philanthropy and the French State, both historically and in the present day.

Building upon a growing scholarly literature that has unearthed the complementary role of philanthropy to State initiatives in France, this 2017 special issue of Genèses examined the (earlier) origins of the opposition between State and civil society or private charitable actors. This broader historical perspective allows us to appreciate the evolution of perceptions of philanthropy’s proper relationship with the State in France.

The main hypothesis organizing all the articles gathered in this HistPhil forum is that France is characterized, especially from the beginning of the twentieth century, by the participation of private actors in furthering the State’s monopoly on the conception of the public good (“intérêt général”). Because the State has maintained a monopoly on the definition and, largely, the implementation of the general interest in France (especially from the Third Republic – 1870-1940 – onward), one of the conditions for the legitimation of the French Republican State has been to reduce the intervention of private actors in the field of public action. Subsequently, it has been difficult for scholars and the public at large in France to appreciate the role of private actors in furthering the public good, because the State has had reason to downplay and overshadow the presence of private actors in its work.

Thus, rather than looking for the “hidden social State” in a society such as the U.S. with decentralized State power and a general distrust of the State, this forum focuses instead on unearthing “hidden private actors” in a society such as France that long has assumed the omnipresence of the State.

In the process of presenting research on such “hidden private actors” throughout the long span of French history, the articles in this forum make three significant contributions to our understanding of private and public actors in France. The first is to make it possible to deconstruct the public-private dichotomy in nineteenth century France, just at the moment when the country was undergoing the nationalization of the social—the rising dominance of the State as principal determiner of the social good. Furthermore, these articles highlight the existence and the stability of exchanges between philanthropists (here we use the term in a generic sense, covering the actors of Catholic charities and members of charitable organizations) and the State, which are conditioned by the symbolic importance of the State in France and which, in turn, contribute to the preeminence of public power in the definition of the general interest. In historical contexts and with different actors, we can observe the conversion of philanthropic investments into State prestige—or rather, the State’s acknowledgment of philanthropy’s public value—notably through public rewards but also through the procedure of recognition of public utility: an administrative procedure controlled by the higher judicial authority that provides tax deduction to charities.

Through this set of mechanisms, the French State integrates private contributions to the general interest, and in the process, enlists them in the service of its own power. Admittedly, the State’s efforts to convert private acts toward the public good as a means of strengthening its own power is characteristic of the relation of elites to public authorities, and thus, not an unprecedented act. This dynamic is evidenced by the importance of the symbolic logic of gifts in varied contexts and forms (for example, the system of Euergetism in the Late Roman Empire). However, the State in France produces specific effects on the relationship it has with private groups. State power in France distributes some of its symbolic resources to private groups who, expecting or seeking recognition by the State, in fact accept the State’s pre-eminence. In effect then, such private individuals and organizations contribute, indirectly, to a representation of the social world which diminishes their own contribution to its organization.

Acknowledging this mechanism in public-private group dynamics, several consequences can be drawn. First, it calls attention to a “perceptive filter” that prevents scholars from grasping private actors’ contributions to the public good in the period following the construction of the social and fiscal State. In France, the construction of this filter happens, for the most part, after the First World War. Its widespread deployment, at least regarding the social state, occurs after the Second World War with the promulgation of the ordinances establishing Social Security.

The representation of the past offered in these posts furthermore illuminates the present in a different light: Rather than seeing the contemporary State’s disengagement and philanthropic actors’ prominence as novelties in French life, we can understand these two dynamics as new variations of older, intertwined traditions in France.

Secondly, these contributions help us think anew about the distinction Americans tend to draw between a long tradition of philanthropy in the U.S. and the central role that other countries, such as France, give to the State in shaping public life. What this framing misses is that, at least in France, philanthropy has played a significant role, though rather than serving as a counter-weight to the State, French philanthropy has contributed to the construction of the State. In France, that is, philanthropy has long played a complementary role to the State, so much so that the contributions of these private actors have been overlooked.

Finally, the essays in this forum invite us to revise the place of France in scholars’ general survey of national models of philanthropy. In these classifications, scholars tend to catalogue France as one of the Latin and Mediterranean States that are characterized by having a weak civil society and a State suspicious of initiatives emanating from civil society. Historical revisions have been made to this model and the observation of the contemporary dynamics of the State’s fostering of philanthropy invites us once again to emphasize the limits of these classifications.

For these reasons, this series of essays constitutes an important contribution to contemporary discussions on the history and present of philanthropy and the State in France. We furthermore hope that our readers beyond France will see the novelty and value of these essays, both for their understanding of French life and to inform conversations in their own countries on the role of private and public funders of public goods. Because as these essays suggest, private funders long have played noteworthy roles in nurturing, funding, and shaping public life, including in countries such as France with strong central States. Such funders, though, have played such complementary roles to the State that they can be difficult to see and appreciate as distinct actors in public life.

-Nicolas Duvoux

Professor of sociology at Paris VIII University, researcher at CRESPPA-LabToP, Nicolas Duvoux is a specialist in issues of social solidarity, poverty and philanthropy. He is the author of several books. In addition to his teaching and research activities, he is a collection director at Presses Universitaires de France and editor-in-chief of Vie des idé 


Nicolas Duvoux, « Introduction », in Philanthropies et prestige d’État en France, xixe-xxe siècles, Genèses 2017/4 (n° 109), p. 3-8.
 (translated by Anne Monier)




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