Microloans are characterised by small loan amounts (according to the 2003 European definition <€25,000) for persons who are excluded from access to bank credit. For business purposes microloans are provided to microenterprises (1-9 employees) and self-employed persons. France is the country in Western Europe where the microcredit sector is the best developed.

This is the outcome of 20 years of activity of three principal organisations: Adie, France Initiative and France Active (all are non-profit organisations). They differ in the kind of products they offer, in their functioning, their sources of funding and with regard to the target group they serve. All these organisations also provide business support services for the entrepreneurs they finance and rely heavily on support from volunteers. These organisations have shown that a huge demand for microcredit exists; since launching their programmes, they have grown substantially.

A study carried out in 2008 by Adie on behalf of the European Investment Fund (EIF) on the gap between demand and supply of microfinance for business purposes in France confirms the huge existing demand for microcredit. The study differentiates between the non-bankable demand (loans below €15,000) and the bankable demand (loans between €15,000 and €30,000) for microcredit. The results illustrate that the demand for microcredit in France is still largely unmet, with 100,000 microloans from banks and between 80,000 and 130,000 loans from non-bank microcredit providers lacking. The financial resources used for setting up an enterprise in France are generally low: in 2006, approximately 50% of entrepreneurs started their business with less than €8,000. However, only about a quarter of all new entrepreneurs took out a bank loan . Banks are often reluctant to provide small loans due to their unprofitability (high handling costs) and a higher risk ratio. Obtaining a small loan is even more difficult for persons who do not have the means to bring in a considerable amount of own capital and who lack necessary guarantees. This often concerns unemployed persons, especially the long-term unemployed.

Adie has defined the provision of microcredit as its main mission and strategy. It was founded in 1989 upon the private initiative of Maria Nowak and two colleagues. Inspired by the international microcredit model developed in Bangladesh, Adie’s aim is to serve socially and financially excluded persons who do not have access to standard bank loans and who would like to create their own job. 83% of its clients are welfare recipients and unemployed persons with an average unemployment period of two years. Out of these, 42% receive social minima paid to persons who have exhausted employment based income support. Adie’s principal products are microloans up to €5,500 for a maximum period of 24 months. On its loans, Adie applies an interest rate which is today 7.98% plus a 5% commission. The ratio behind this model is to be able to serve a relatively ‘risky’ clientele and at the same time rely as little as possible on public subsidies for the credit activities. The Adie microloan can be complemented by loan products made available through public programmes.

During its 20 years of existence, Adie has expanded its activities significantly. It has today 369 staff working in 131 branch offices spread over the French mainland and overseas territories and disbursed nearly 10,000 loans in 2007 representing a 30% growth compared to the year before. (Adie, Rapport Annuel 2007) Another microlender is France Initiative. France Initiative has a different history and serves a different type of client than Adie. The association was set up upon public initiative in 1985 as a federation of 20 local business support programmes with the global mission to develop economic initiative through business start-up. It works in very close collaboration with the Chambers of Commerce where its local offices are often located. As its main activity, the association disburses quasi-equity in the form of so-called “prêts d’honneur” (‘honour loans’). These are personal, interest-free loans without guarantee that are generally used to leverage a bank loan. In 2007, 66% of France Initiative clients were unemployed. Nevertheless, in contrast to Adie, France Initiative targets relatively experienced, ‘almost-bankable’ persons with projects aimed at creating three to ten jobs. The average amount of a prêt d’honneur was €7,400 in 2007 accompanied by more than seven times that amount in bank lending. Thirty percent of the projects funded by France Initiative are business take-overs. In 2007, it disbursed 12,500 prêts d’honneur out of which an estimated 5,000 enabled the beneficiaries to access a bank microcredit (Adie/EMN, Microfinance Market Study, 2008). France Initiative today federates 242 so-called local platforms with all in all 509 employees. Often new local platforms are set up upon local initiative and partnerships between business owners, Chambers of Commerce and/or regional governments. (France Initiative Rapport Annuel 2007) Complementary to the products disbursed by these two organisms, a number of additional programmes were developed by the French government to support small business start-ups, especially by the unemployed, such as guarantees. Beside equity investment, the organisations France Active which has been in existence for more than 20 years, manages a number of guarantee schemes, amongst which two governmental ones: the FGIF (Fonds de Garantie pour la création, la reprise ou le développement d’entreprises à l’initiative des femmes), a guarantee fund for women entrepreneurs and the FGIE (Fonds de Garantie pour l’Insertion Economique) which is used by Adie to cover a part of its risk. France Active is made up of 39 territorial funds and works with 280 staff. Other governmental programmes complement these services for microentrepreneurs. As such France Initiative and Adie are allowed to additionally provide the ‘PCE’ loan (prêt à la création d’entreprise’ – business start-up loan) which was introduced by the State in 2000 and is managed by the public development bank OSEO. It consists of an unsecured loan between €2,000 and €7,000 with an interest rate based upon state bonds (approximately 5.6%), a six-month deferment on principal payments and a maximum loan term of five years (54 monthly instalments). PCE loans are disbursed to registered new microenterprises not more than three years old as well as to take-overs, regardless of their sector of activity (except for agriculture and real estate). An accompanying bank loan two or three times the amount of the PCE is obligatory. 23,261 PCE loans were disbursed in 2007. In addition, for business started out of unemployment, another loan was introduced: EDEN, a financial advance for entrepreneurs above 50 or younger than 30 years of age and beneficiaries of social minima.

Since the beginning of their activities, the French microcredit organisations have been able to largely increase their activities and the number of loans disbursed. This is the result of several factors that are closely linked: the strong efforts of single persons as is the case for Adie’s president Maria Nowak; local partnerships between business owners, French regions and Chambers of Commerce leading to the development of the France Initiative network; a reinforced acknowledgement of entrepreneurship and self-employment in the political sphere and strong improvements in the legal environment for microenterprises and microcredit.

Regarding the legal framework, Adie has carried out significant lobbying to obtain an amendment to the French banking law allowing certain microcredit providers to borrow for on-lending to microenterprises during the first five years after business start-up. In addition the usury rate for loans provided to individual entrepreneurs was abolished, allowing Adie to set an interest rate that covers part of its expenses. The Adie Microfinance Market Study (2008) acknowledges the efforts made by the French government to encourage the development of microcredit, while highlighting persistent barriers to be addressed such as insufficient funding for business support services and insufficient attention to the informal sector.