The hidden private actors of French philanthropy

Par Interview with Nicolas Duvoux , by Sylvain Lefèvre
25 April 2018

 Can you explain the context of the publication of the issue of Genèsesdedicated to the relationship between “Philanthropies and State prestige in France[1]”?

Philanthropy has seen a resurgence of interest in France over the past fifteen years. The number of foundations and endowment funds has greatly increased, along with the visibility of philanthropists in public spheres. In response to this social phenomenon, studies on the subject were conducted in the social sciences, but some of them were not centered on the “philanthropy” aspect, even if they touched on it in various angles. It was thus important to gather and structure a collection of studies dedicated to research on this subject, in history, political science and in sociology. This orientation of research around the subject of “philanthropy” must not overshadow the inherent difficulties in employing the term. What is philanthropy? How do we identify it? By the intention, the motivation, by its support of the tax system, its legal form, by the actors involved? This unifying category has as a major inconvenience of being a category of common meaning. Very integrative and largely transmitted by the actors themselves, it allows for the existence of the phenomenon and to give it unity, and thus to increase their capacity to be recognized and heard, notably by the public powers. The notion of philanthropy cannot be considered as external to the social object that allows its study. Nevertheless, it has the advantage that it allows to lump together a diversity of private forms of contributions in the general interest and understand the evolutionary character of this phenomenon through its relation with public powers. This is the direction of the measures recently taken by Oliver Zunz[2]in his magnificent study of the relations between different philanthropic actors in the United States and the public powers of the country.

We often evoke France’s case as being one of a country where philanthropy is historically very weak, due to a strong State. How does this issue question this presumption?

There are two ideas in France, bound together, and that are commonly conveyed. The first is that the State and civil society are two separate entities and the second is that the State overlooks the other. The State in France went through a continuous unification process that would have led to it absorbing and crushing civil society, unlike the United States for example where organizations contributed to the production of a social bond. This issue seeks to question these two ideas. For the first, it is supported by previously acquired information that had originally put into question the dichotomy between the State and philanthropy. Christian Topalov, a historian and sociologist had markedly brought to light the intertwining of the courses of action, the fluidity of the networks of private and public actors. He had markedly brought to light, at the time of the 3rdRepublic at the end of the 19thcentury, a time of institutional stabilization, that a charitable compromise had been made between the republicans and the private actors of charity[3]. Nonetheless, the image of a State monopoly in the definition of the general interest was imposed and persists. What interests us here, is that this vision had, and continues to have, important, real effects on the behaviours and the exchanges that are made between private actors and public powers around donations and philanthropic practices. Their beginnings and conditions of possibility had to be questioned.

With this matter in mind, this issue takes the responsibility of questioning the origin of the opposition between the State and civil society or private actors of charity, by embracing a long period during which the categories that permitted the thought of philanthropic action seemingly evolved. The main hypothesis that organizes all of the articles grouped in this issue was suggested, amongst others, by the American detour. Through the symmetrical invisibility process of the federal State’s actions in the United States, allowed through social tax expenditure (to speak as the politest Christopher Howard does[4]), our hypothesis considers that France is characterized, notably as of the beginning of the 20thcentury, by a euphemization of the participation of private actors in the elaboration of the general interest. Due to the hostility of principal towards federal state intervention in social matters in the States, the latter has supported itself on discreet mechanisms, such as fiscal deductions and exemptions, to regulate large portions of civil society and orient contributions. With the monopoly that the State claimed over the definition of, and in large part, the implementation of the general interest in France, notably as of the 3rdRepublic, a process of depreciation of private actor intervention in the field of public action was one of the conditions of the legitimization of the republican French state. The analysis in terms of a “hidden social State” that is very dear to American researchers is here reversed, to illuminate the French case, for the benefit of an analysis in terms of “hidden private actors”. This mechanism brings up a paradox: the vision of a State that oversees, defines and implements alone the general interest coexists in fact with the profusion of private actors, who have varying values, projects and successes. The two poles aren’t exclusive, since the profusion of private actors places itself and is placed under the symbolic governance of a State that it recognizes in exchange of the recognition of its contributions.

The articles bring out the existence and the stability of an exchange between philanthropists (we use this term in the generic sense, which covers the actors of catholic charity, the members of charitable societies, as much as the progressives who invest in philanthropy) and the State, an exchange that is conditioned by the symbolic importance coveted by the State in France and which contributes, in return, to the pre-eminence of the public power in the definition of the general interest. Indeed, we can observe the continuity, in different historical contexts and with different actors, of a conversion of philanthropic investments into State prestige, particularly by means of public rewards but also by the game itself of the recognition procedure of public utility. Through this collection of mechanisms, the French State operates, for the social groups that invest in philanthropy, a conversion of their economic and social capital into prestige. It integrates private contributions into the general interest and thus enlists them in the service of their own power, which could be seen as quite literal, when it is able to direct private resources toward its own institutions to the detriment of other beneficiaries, as demonstrates the example of contemporary cultural politics. Nevertheless, this conversion, characteristic of the relationship of the public power elite, is not new, proven by the prevalence of symbolic logics around donations in a variety of contexts and forms. However, the role and image of the State in France, whose actors, for a long time, thought of themselves as the servants of a nation-State capable of establishing society, produce specific effects on the relationship that it maintains with other groups. The State power distributes a part of its symbolic resources to social groups, who by hoping or asking for its recognition, accept, de facto, its pre-eminence and contribute, indirectly, to a representation of the social world that diminishes their own contribution in its organization.

It is in this framework that it is possible to differentiate the forms taken by the relationships between philanthropies and the State in France. We observe a form of structuring and of recognition of the belonging to a social environment in the study of the archives of the requests of utility recognition made to the State Council (article by Chloé Gaboriaux[5]). We can also note that through a collection of incentives (notably fiscal ones) but also symbolic ones, the State has not ceased to stimulate philanthropy, creating dilemmas for actors who, as the congregation members studied by Matthieu Bréjon de Lavergnée[6], deny the State in theory but accept their recognition in practice. More recently, Anne Monier[7]highlights how the State uses the prestige it benefits from upon rich American individuals to finance certain cultural establishments. It even develops a form of “decorations business” where the support of “American Friends” is cashed in in this way.

If the philanthropic actors are “hidden”, is it because they prefer this discreet position, in the margins of public debate? Or is it because they were rendered invisible by the State? Or by the historians and researchers that would have played down philanthropy’s role?

If the philanthropic actors are “hidden”, it is because their relative discretion is the counterpart to the recognition of their contribution by the Republic’s authorities. We should not neglect however that these actors have resources (affiliations, multipositionality, etc.) to argue for a certain number of interests without having to pass through direct contestation, in most cases, but as Nagisa Mitsushima’s[8]analyses show, this proposition could not even be considered outside of a precise context in which philanthropic investments unfold (neither, for that matter, can the opposite proposition that would define philanthropy as a protesting action stemming from the superior categories of society). In the end, the social sciences, without a doubt, do not give this sector the importance it takes on and have contributed to validate the representation of an omnipotent State, despite recent corrections. The evolution of a historian such as Pierre Rosanvallon is significant in this difficulty and in the necessity to make a widespread group of actors and of initiatives emerge[9]. In 1991, he wrote a book on the importance of the State in France that, in a historical context, showed the importance of the symbolic or institutive dimension of the latter in comparison with other countries. In 2004, he wrote another book on the French social model that showed the underestimated importance of civil society and its organization, but also its capacity of resisting the central State[10].

How to characterize the relationship between the State and philanthropy in France in the 19thand 20thcenturies? Complementarity, competition, substitution…

There is no single model, other than the stability of the process of the conversion of economic capital into symbolic capital and in the recognition by the State of the elites that serve the causes that it recognizes as being in the general interest. What stands out when looking at the contributions, is the plurality of philanthropic investments and of the material and symbolic frameworks. This plurality denies all unifying and teleological readings of the phenomenon and of its long-term effects. We do indeed have the tendency to think of philanthropists’ actions with regards to social matters as being a first step before the nationalization of social protection. Thus, this view, in terms of anticipation, is misleading. Hence, if we limit ourselves to one single period, the first half of the 19thcentury, the contributions of Matthieu Bréjon de Lavergnée on the one hand and those of Nagisa Mitsushima on the other bring out two distinct worlds, with charity on one side and philanthropy on the other. The philanthropies are carriers of different political orientations, themselves resting on very different positions. For the actors of catholic charity that were studied, at the local scale, by Matthieu Bréjon de Lavergnée, the catholic charity of the 19thcentury “goes against the modern economydominated by merchant relations, modern politics which is witness to the growing assertion of the State, and the modern social life which renders the nuclear family the heart of bourgeois morality” (p.31). It is an anti-modernity reaction in which the desire to reintegrate the donation in society (to replace the contract) is imposed as an element of a much larger project where the support of the poor is a way to assert the heteronomity of the social order. For the liberal aristocratic elite, philanthropy is contrarily a waiting room before obtaining or recuperating political positions of first rank. Disturbed by the modern modalities of the construction of political legitimacy (the built-in number of consensus), philanthropists are looking for their capacities to be recognized through their actions and having a real grip on the social world.

How does this historical detour allow us to renew our view on contemporary relations between the State and philanthropy?

The ensemble of these contributions allows to give reason to the constitution of a “perceptual filter” that prevents the grasping the actors’ logic in the period that follows the construction of the social and fiscal State[11]– a construction that intervenes, in France, essentially, after World War I, with a generalized deployment, at least with what concerns the social State, after the second global conflict, with the dissemination of orders that carried the creation of Social security. This representation shines a new light on the present: it indeed appears that, far from seeing the State disengage itself, the contemporary period is characterized by a restructuring of its action, which depends at the same time on a larger and more systematic implication of philanthropic actors and on the new visibility of a much more ancient involvement. Contemporary philanthropists present themselves as being independent of the State even while their action is made possible and is supported by fiscal incentives, constituting one of the more favorable environments in the developed world. The State is thus, and this is the novel part, in active support of the development of philanthropy in France and carries this sector which has the wind in its sails. Philanthropy appears as a way of labeling contributions towards the general interest. We must understand this evolution in the triple context of a change in forms of governance, more narrowly associating the public and private sectors, the increase in inequalities and the loss of legitimacy of the State.

We often cite the impulse given to philanthropy by André Malraux via the creation of the Foundation of France, when he was the Minister of Culture. What do the two articles dedicated to philanthropy in the cultural domain teach us about the modern restructuring of the borders between the State and philanthropy?

These contributions converge to bring up the impulsion and the State solicitation of private actors, both French and American, in the financing of the cultural sector. Sabine Rozier[12], through an investigation and the use of archives on the spokespeople of the French patronage and of the Minister of culture, shows the way in which actors placed in hardly legitimate segments of the State apparatus, within the Culture’s administration, solicited and encouraged the intervention of private actors in the financing of public goods, while also throwing themselves, in the 1980s-1990s, in the prevention of more dominant actors in the State. Fiscal incentives, both regulatory and symbolic, were thus progressively put in place in order to facilitate the discreet enrollment of companies in the financing of national cultural institutions. The last contribution, by Anne Monier, brings up the transnational dimension of philanthropy by using the example of the American Friends of the French cultural institutions. She shoes how the State put in place a collection of facilities, of locations and of symbolic gratifications to encourage and reward the implication of American philanthropic actors in the financing of prestigious French cultural institutions. The State has thus not only solicited the competition of economic actors but has also given a transnational dimension to the search for extrabudgetary resources. There too, one of the characteristics of these financing methods is to partially dissimilate the association of private actors in the production of the general interest in the cultural domain.


For further information
  • Mitsushima, N. (2017). Aménager, subvertir et contester l’ordre électoral: Philanthropie et politique sous la Restauration (1819-1830). Genèses, 109,(4).
  • Monier, A. (2017). L’État comme ressource symbolique dans le monde philanthropique : L’exemple des American Friends des institutions culturelles françaises. Genèses, 109 (4).
  • Rozier, S. (2017). Le mécénat culturel d’entreprise dans la France des années 1980-1990 : une affaire d’État. Genèses, 109,(4).
  • Année PhiLanthropique du PhiLab, Philanthropie en Europe, avril 2018.
Notes de bas de page


[1]Duvoux, N. (2017), « Philanthropies et prestige d’Etat en France, XIXe-XXe siècles », Genèses, 109 (4), 3-8. Pour consulter l’ensemble des articles du n° :

[2]Zunz, O. (2012). La philanthropie en Amérique. Argent privé, affaires d’État. Paris, Fayard ; Zunz, O. (2012). Philanthropy in America : A History. Princeton, Princeton University Press. Voir aussi Lambelet, A., Rozier, S., Zunz, O. (2017), « Entretien avec Olivier Zunz. La philanthropie en Amérique »,Ethnographiques, Numéro 34, Philanthropies.

[3]Topalov, C. (1996). « Langage de la réforme et déni du politique. Le débat entre assistance publique et bienfaisance privée, 1889-1903 », Genèses, 23, p. 30-52 ; Topalov C. (dir.) (1999). Laboratoires du nouveau siècle. La nébuleuse réformatrice et ses réseaux en France(1880-1914), Paris, Editions de l’EHESS.

[4][4]Howard, C. (1999). The Hidden Welfare State,  Tax Expenditures and Social Policy in the United States, Princeton University Press.

[5]Gaboriaux, C. (2017). Une construction sociale de l’utilité publique: Associations et fondations devant le Conseil d’État (1870-1914). Genèses, 109 (4), 57-79.

[6]Brejon de Lavergnée, M. (2017). Une politique sans État : Charité catholique et régulation de la pauvreté à Paris au xixe siècle. Genèses, 109 (4), 9-31.

[7]Monier, A. (2017). L’État comme ressource symbolique dans le monde philanthropique : L’exemple des American Friends des institutions culturelles françaises. Genèses, 109 (4), 100-117.

[8]Mitsushima, N. (2017). Aménager, subvertir et contester l’ordre électoral: Philanthropie et politique sous la Restauration (1819-1830). Genèses, 109,(4), 32-56.

[9]Rosanvallon, P. (1990). L’État en France de 1789 à nos jours, Paris, Ed. du Seuil.

[10]Rosanvallon, P. (2004). Le Modèle politique français. La société civile contre le jacobinisme de 1789 à nos jours, Paris, Ed. du Seuil.

[11]Cette construction de l’État social se produit, en France, pour l’essentiel, après la première guerre mondiale, puis se déploie de manière plus généralisée après le second conflit mondial, via la promulgation des ordonnances portant création de la Sécurité sociale.

[12]Rozier, S. (2017). Le mécénat culturel d’entreprise dans la France des années 1980-1990 : une affaire d’État. Genèses, 109,(4), 80-99.