New Militant Commitments or New Jobs? Becoming Assembly Leader at the Food Assembly in France

Friday, June 24, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
597 Evans (Evans Hall)
Diane Rodet, Centre Max Weber, Université Lumière Lyon2, LYON, France
New militant commitments or new jobs?

Becoming Assembly leader at The Food Assembly in France


            Having only emerged a decade ago, a new form of commercial trade has been growing at a very fast pace over the past five years. It is characterized by exchanges of assets and services between private individuals coordinated via the Internet. Startups such as Airbnb, Etsy or Uber encourage private individuals to merchandize their personal items (apartments, cars, knitting…). The merchandization of assets or activities previously excluded from the market is now concerning an unexpected part of private life: militancy and community life.

            In the agricultural sector, a startup, « The Food Assembly » (FA), invites private individuals to set up a pop-up food market in order to contribute to a fairer agriculture. Founded in France in 2011 this start-up manages an online platform that allows consumers and food producers to meet up and bypass mass distribution. It’s now spreading in Europe (Germany, England, Spain, Italy, Belgium…) under different names. There were 726 assemblies in France in July 2015. The online platform had 70 employees and achieved a total of 2 millions euros in turnover.

            The FA advocates « alternative » ways of producing and distributing food, local, hence more ecological, and promoting interactions between its « community members ». By doing so, the FA follows the « Community supported agriculture »’s basic principles that are now quite well known. Called « AMAP » (Associations pour le maintien d’une agriculture paysanne – literally: associations for the preservation of peasant agriculture) those initiatives were founded in France in 2001. They put together consumers and a farmer (usually a fruits and vegetables producer). The formers pre-finance the production which will be divided each week in an agreed venue. The latter commits himself to make and deliver those « baskets » of food. Consumers organize distributions in turn. Volunteers manage relationships between consumers and the farmers. The novelty of the FA is that it relies on private individuals getting a commission, who aren’t thus either volunteers or employed by the platform. Those workers could be similar to militants that strive to reconcile convictions and profession, as can be found in solidarity economy (Rodet, 2013) or political parties (Bargel, 2011).

            Several studies, however, underline the risks associated with activities that mix job and activism. It could in some cases lead to poor working and employment conditions (Hély and Moulévrier, 2013). The militant motivations may sometimes appear to be less important than the urge to find a job – whatever the conditions- as it has been highlighted for job seekers in the associative sector (Darbus and Hély, 2010) or others workers of the so-called sharing economy (Peugeot et al., 2015). First reflections about this sector emphasize the fear that those activities may lead to new working poors, holding several jobs to make ends meet, paid on a piecework basis, lacking social protection.

            The Food Assembly can’t avoid such questioning. Its « leaders » combine job insecurity with an unclear legal situation, between self-employment and a rather strong subordination to the online platform. Those « hosts » are most of the time « auto-entrepreneur » (French simplified self-employment regime) or have the « EURL » status (one-person limited liability undertakings). Those two statuses actually concern 66 % of them – while the others are registered as non-profit organizations or other enterprises. Assembly leaders are responsible for contacting producers within 150 miles radius, finding a venue (sometimes their home), organizing pop-up markets, setting and maintaining a local page connected to the main online platform. Managing an Assembly takes from 10 to 15 hours of work per week. Assembly leaders get 8,35% of the famers’ and foodmakers’ pre-tax turnover. Another 8,35% goes to the startup in order to develop the main website. The relationships between the local group and the online platform share some features with a franchise system: the start-up decides whether the leader can open a new assembly or not, suggests prices, and provides a “distribution kit” (decoration and apron customized to The Food Assembly’s colors and name).

            The way The Food Assembly operates is thus ambiguous as far as the Assembly Leaders are concerned. How do those people get involved in such an activity? Are they qualified workers looking for militant commitment, alongside a main paid employment – and if so, why don’t they then do it as volunteers? Are they rather some kind of new working poors hoping they’ll manage to make a living out of it, in the end? As far as the first hypothesis is concerned, to what extent are those workers similar to those committed to solidarity economy? Can several profiles be identified?

           This communication addresses those interrogations. It analyses the ways ordinary people turn into food entrepreneurs, scrutinizing their career path, education and possible previous militant commitments. It makes a comparison between this Assembly leader activity and new militant commitment forms that can be found in solidarity economy. It will also consider the ways this occupation was undertaken at the beginning and how it can be articulated with others, private or professional. This communication relies on the one hand, on a completed research on new forms of commitment in solidarity economy, and on the other hand, on an ongoing one concerning Assembly leaders from Lyon (7 assembly leaders) and its surroundings (3) on the basis of interviews, observations and websites analysis.


BARGEL L. 2011. «  S’attacher à la politique. Carrières de jeunes socialistes professionnels », Sociétés contemporaines, 84(4): 79-102.

DARBUS F. HELY M. 2010. « Travailler dans l’ESS : aspirations, représentations et dispositions », RECMA, 317 : 68-86.

HELY M. MOULEVRIER P. 2013. L’économie sociale et solidaire : de l’utopie aux pratiques. Paris : La Dispute.

Peugeot V. Beuscart J.-S. Pharabod A.-S.  Trespeuch M. 2015. « Partager pour mieux consommer ? », ESPRIT, 7 : 19-29

RODET D. 2013. Une production engagée. Sociologie des labels, chartes et systèmes participatifs de l’économie solidaire. Thèse de doctorat de sociologie, Paris : CNAM.