Sol France

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Really making money

Voir aussi : Projet Sol

The SOL project is piloting, as part of the EQUAL programme, an alternative currency that combines three roles: loyalty card, local barter scheme and service voucher. In three French regions, 18,000 users will be able to get a bonus on their purchases, and swap services with their neighbours. The SOL also offers local authorities a way to target their services to those who need them most.

What is money? We tend to think of it as what's in our pocket, plus what's in our bank account – and if we're lucky the pension we will get when we retire. But money clearly serves different purposes – and some are at cross-purposes. One of the most imaginative of EQUAL creations, the SOL combines three different types of money:

  • The Co-operation SOL (SOL Coopération) acts like a loyalty card and is calculated in euros;
  • The Commitment SOL (SOL engagement) aims to make voluntary work visible and accountable, and is calculated in time;
  • The Dedicated SOL (SOL affecté) is a voucher given by the public sector to specific target groups, allowing them to access specific goods or services.

Not only is the project innovative in using chip cards, the internet and mobile phones, but also it aims to introduce a new concept of wealth not exclusively based on money.

Spending your way out of depression

The SOL project is the result of a long process that started at the international congress on social money held in Paris in 1996. An informal working group was created to examine the different kinds of social money systems existing in the world, such as LETS in the UK, Time Dollar in the USA, Chiemgauer in Germany, Wir in Switzerland and Chèque Déjeuner products in France and Europe. This group included experts such as Patrick Viveret (a philosopher and author of Reconsidering Wealth); Lucien Pfeiffer (an economist who introduced leasing to France); representatives of large social economy organisations such as MACIF (a French mutual insurer), the Crédit Coopératif Group (a French co-operative bank), the Chèque Déjeuner Group (the third-largest voucher issuer in the world), CJDES (an association of French social economy executives and actors); and several other institutions and experts.

A specific inspiration is the experiment carried out in Wörgl, Austria, between 1932 and 1934. In order to fight economic decline and unemployment of approximately 35%, the town decided to print special banknotes (backed by an identical sum in national currency) which bore a negative interest rate – in other words they lost 1% of its value each month (what is called demurrage). In 1934, not only was Wörgl the first Austrian town to reach full employment, but it also carried out many public works (water supply, roads, reforestation). This experiment proved that money at negative interest circulated 40 times faster than the official currency!

Being unable to open a bank account and use other banking services represents a form of exclusion. The SOL will allow more people to take part in processes of exchange, to launch economic activities and to access a range of social and environmental goods and services. The project aims to:

  • give back money its function of being a means, and not an end in itself
  • reconcile the economy with ethics, politics and the environment
  • make the products and services offered by social economy more visible (by creating a brand)
  • build loyalty among the members and customers of social economy organisations
  • support the development of the social economy and its links with local authorities

Three different applications

Co-operation SOL (SOL Coopération): This works as an inter-enterprise loyalty scheme (like loyalty cards or air miles). A company can give SOLs to a "soloist" (solist), who can use them anywhere in the SOL network. The soloist who does not use his SOLs loses them gradually month by month, according to a demurrage scheme. SOLs that have been cancelled are invested in a mutual fund expressly created to support social economy projects and managed by the whole soloists' assembly.

For example Co-operation SOLs can be awarded by a mutual insurance company, when the soloist takes out an insurance policy. He then can use the SOLs to buy fair trade coffee or use public services such as swimming pools or theatres. They are transferable or can be used to finance local and national social projects. The purpose of this Co-operation SOL is on the one hand to develop a social economy network and its activities, and, on the other, to represent a brand and a powerful marketing tool for social economy producers.

Commitment SOL (SOL Engagement): Voluntary organisations can award their volunteers Commitment SOLs, which they can then use to obtain discounts on goods and services within the SOL network. They can also exchange time through their SOL cards or on the internet. For example, somebody can exchange a cooking lesson for a dancing lesson. The Commitment SOL can be used by time-based local exchange systems (in France called SELs).

Another more powerful application is the possibility of combining local public services with voluntary work in order to develop exchanges between people who do not have much money. This example is being piloted in Rennes: if a wealthy old lady agrees to rent part of her flat cheaply to a young student or worker (who cannot afford to pay a market rent), the public authorities will issue her SOLs that she can use, for example, to pay for public transport, cultural activities (tickets for museums, cinema) or home services. The tenant, in return for the cheap rent, will spend some of their time doing voluntary work (for instance caring for disabled people or helping children with school work), thus generating social added value for the community.

Dedicated SOL (SOL Affecté): This is based on the concept, already well developed in France, of dedicated currencies.[1] It is a modern way for public authorities to help marginalised and poor people. For example, a city council can decide to give Dedicated SOLs to help people to take out health insurance, or to help them to take care of their children while searching for a job. Many other applications can be designed within the SOL project, either to replace existing services or to offer new ones.

Replacing traditional social vouchers with Dedicated SOLs has several advantages. It helps to include marginalised people in a larger circuit, giving them the opportunity to participate in other 'SOL activities' and to valorise their activities and capacities. In this way, the discrimination linked to traditional social vouchers disappears. Moreover, it has a lever effect on the development of social economy, giving preference to products that can be bought in SOLs.

Three pilot regions

The SOL is being piloted throughout 2007 in three locations:

  • in the Paris region, in Paris intra-muros and Fontenay aux Roses;
  • in Brittany, in Rennes and Carhaix;
  • in the North of France, in Lille and its suburbs.

Each region will distribute around 6,000 SOL chip cards and install 150 point-of-sale (POS) systems. At the start the system will be based on 10-15 organisations in each region. Members can register either directly via the web, or through participating organisations.

Of the three functions of the card, it is the Co-operation and Dedicated SOLs which are moving forward fastest:

  • A number of local authorities are interested in the possibility of using the Commitment SOL to reward volunteers for their active citizenship by credit them with the use of facilities such as swimming pools or public transport;
  • Meanwhile some retailers are planning to implement the 'Co-operation' function: for instance a fair trade shop plans to give SOL users a bonus of 2% - and 5% for purchases above 150 euro. The project will product a catalogue listing participating businesses.

By comparison the 'LETS' function (the Commitment SOL) is likely to grow the most slowly. This 'local exchange trading system' function allows users to barter their services with each other, and keep accounts in SOLs, thus meeting needs and injecting liquidity into the local economy. Most of the several dozen LETS (SEL) schemes that exist in France are quite informal and function between individuals with a very lightweight central system. By contrast the project co-ordinator Mr Jean-Phillipe Poulnot of Chèque Déjeuner thinks it wise to have an intermediary organisation that can ensure that the system is not used for illegal purposes, for instance. The first scheme will start in Brittany.

Mutual benefit

The SOL idea is built on a public-social partnership. The EQUAL project brings together three comple­mentary actors of the social economy: along with lead organisation Chèque Déjeuner (a workers' co-operative and a leading voucher issuer), there are a major co-operative bank (Crédit Coopératif) and two large mutual insurers (MACIF and MAIF). From the public side come the three pilot regions (Ile de France, Nord–Pas de Calais and Brittany) and several cities within them such as Rennes, Lille and Paris. In addition to these cities, some smaller towns such as Carhaix and Fontenay aux Roses decided to join. Then in each of the three pilot regions there is a local organisation experienced in social engineering, which bears the responsibility of co-ordinating the action and educating users: in the Île de France CEEFIA, in Nord-Pas de Calais EII, and in Brittany SCOP IC.

For the authorities, the SOL allows them to modernise their welfare systems by targeting services and benefits more accurately. A public body can grant Co-operation SOLs to associations in order to foster intergenerational services (young workers and students with old people). The main advantage for public bodies is to generate and support the development of new services at a marginal cost. It can also use Dedicated SOLs, which can be traced and which therefore allow them to monitor services' effectiveness and users' preferences. Many public bodies help specific categories of people with money or vouchers which can be used for other purposes than the principal one intended. Chip cards allow closer targeting. Mutual insurers can be powerful distribution channels for the SOL card – for instance MACIF has 4.5 million members! The project is currently working with a sample of 3,000 of its members, and the Mutuelle des Etudiants is thinking about giving the card to all its members. The social economy gains in recognition and sense of identity as well as in member/customer loyalty. The Co-operation SOL will foster local and sustainable consumption (defined through a brand and a charter), comprising fair agriculture, fair trade, goods and services produced by local associa tions, public services, etc. In addition to which the increased trade will create local employment and wealth. Nevertheless persuading partners on board such an innovative project was not automatic: the smaller organisations tended to hang back until the larger ones had signed up. In short, it is hard to create a critical mass, but once you have it, everybody is willing to take part.

In the system's operation, the partnership principle is deepened. The system is managed by a newly created association, which comprises the founding members (with a voting power of 40%), local authorities (30%) and individual soloists (30%).

A social innovation

The project's main innovation is social rather than strictly technological. The chip card and barcode technology is one that Chèque Déjeuner already used, and the software too has been adapted from an existing application (a fact that makes the whole scheme feasible). The partners' familiarity with vouchers, smart cards, point-of-sale systems and internet banking is an important factor in the project's success, and it is the way the system allows public authorities to modernise the way the delivery social services that is the furthest-reaching change the project brings.

Spreading it about

As regards the spread of the SOL across France, two political levels are of most interest: the regions and the city councils. The latter in particular are searching for new ways to resolve the problem of meeting a rising demand for services at a time of budgetary pressure. The current experimentation continues till the end of 2007, and meanwhile further funding is being sought to allow three additional regions, Rhône-Alpes, Alsace and Pays de Loire, to join the scheme. Mr Poulnot has also been carrying the message overseas, and is meeting with interest in Argentina and Brazil, as well as among such heavyweight financial institutions as Quebec's Caisses Desjardins.

Chèque Déjeuner's partners in the SOL project are in Italy, Spain and Portugal, and there is also an unfunded associate partner in Poland. Unlike many EQUAL partnerships, these were spontaneous partners who asked to take part. This strong interest has resulted in an early transnational transfer. MAG2 in Turin plans to launch a similar system, using the same technology, called Domus Bonus, which will use a currency called the Libra. Replication in Spain and Portugal may take longer, but the chances are good that the region of Andalusia in particular will want to move forward.

However for the idea to transfer well, the appropriate legal conditions need to be in place. One reason it works in France is that the tax system makes vouchers (either paper or electronic) both convenient for enterprises and popular with various groups of users. In fact, the Dedicated SOL can help public bodies to orientate the consumption of public services. For example, a city can foster the use of public facilities by giving SOLs to go to museums, public libraries or swimming pools, or to encourage people to choose public transport. The project is developing indicators to show the non-monetary benefits – the 'triple bottom line' – that the SOL generates.

The idea of alternative currencies is also regaining the high ground in academia: against expectations, the idea of the SOL have been taken up by several well-known economists, such as Bernard Maris, Patrick Viveret and Jérôme Blanc, and Mr Poulnot is soon to publish a book on the topic too.


DP name: Création d'une monnaie électronique solidaire
DP ID: FR-NAT-2004-41094
Transnational partnership: TCA 3664 EUROSOL
Contact: Jean Philippe Poulnot, R&D Manager, Chèque Déjeuner
Address: 1 allée des Pierres Mayettes, Parc des Barbanniers, 92230 Gennevilliers, France Tel: +33 1 41850606
E-mail: mailto://
SOL network:
Chèque Déjeuner:


[1] Such as luncheon vouchers (titres restaurant) given by companies to workers to buy lunch, or service vouchers (chèques services) used by local authorities to provide services to specific target groups. In France such voucher systems benefit from tax relief.