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The history of voluntary commitment is closely associated with that of NGOs recognised and authorised by the Law of 1 July 1901, which defines an NGO as "the agreement whereby two or more persons pool together, on a permanent basis, their knowledge or activity for a purpose other than sharing profits" (Article 1). This "republican" act enshrines the right of "freedom of association”, which played a fundamental role in the development of bénévolat (volunteering).
Political organisations (unions, workers' movement, etc.) and religious organisations (religious scouting) played a key role in the creation of the first French network of bénévoles, whose profiles have adapted with social changes.
In the 19th century, the many wars and their wounded contributed to the creation of associations following the example of La Croix-Rouge française (The French Red Cross), founded in 1863, along with the first committees of bénévoles and first-aid organisations: relief societies for wounded soldiers (the Red Cross) that were initially largely composed of men but gradually opened to aristocratic women who, in the late 19th century, set up their own voluntary associations (Union des Femmes de France [Women's Union of France], 1882).
World War II and the post-war period also played a significant role in the evolution of bénévolat, in particular by democratising and increasing the presence of women and young people, who started to join non-profit organisations.
After 1945, the need to rebuild society and French territory generated the birth of large "public utility NGOs" ("reconnues d'utilités publiques" ) such as Secours Catholique, the Petits Frères des Pauvres (1946) and Emmaüs (1949), for which bénévolat was underpinned by the principle of charity and selflessness. The post-war period also saw construction of the "non-formal education movement" for young people. These movements and organisations, which set themselves the goal of training "emancipated citizens", enabled young people to practise recreational, sports, cultural and educational activities as well as to commit in various ways (environmental volunteering, archaeological sites, environment, etc.), participating in creation of a "bénévolat culture" more deeply rooted in French society and based on the values of solidarity, democracy and "active" citizenship.
In the 1950s, the ideals of non-formal education infused the public authorities responsible for youth and specifically the ministries responsible for culture, youth and sport. They began to support the non-formal education movement financially, as well as developing legal, administrative and legislative frameworks for non-profit organisations and promoting "bénévolat" among French youth, especially for the values associated with it.
Since the 1980s, the non-profit sector and bénévolat have grown in France. The sector has undergone many changes, including a gradual professionalisation involving recruitment of "professional bénévoles" and the desire to promote bénévoles' "skills" and thus consider bénévolat as a preliminary professionalising commitment.
According to a study carried out by the France Bénévolat association, L’évolution de l’engagement bénévole associatif en France, de 2010 à 2019 Enquête France Bénévolat-IFOP-Crédit mutuel, France has 20 million volunteers, 13 million of whom are carrying out their project within a non-profit association, 2 million of whom are part of another type of organisation, and 5 million of whom volunteer informally.
The report indicates that:
- Volunteer work is on the rise among young people: The rate of involvement in volunteer work among under-35s increased to 22% in 2019. Despite a decrease among those above 65 years old, their rate of involvement remained higher than that for younger generations (31%).
- There are also slightly more women in associations than men, with an equal level of involvement.
Two types of civic commitments coexist in France: bénévolat and volunteering, which is a specifically French distinction. Although there are two commitment concepts, it is important to stress that they are both based on the same values of (voluntary) solidarity and commitment.
There is no legal or contractual definition of the bénévolat status in French law. The commonly accepted definition is that of the opinion of the Conseil Économique et social (EESC – Economic and Social Council) rendered at its meeting of 24 February 1993 which defines the bénévole as anyone who freely commits to non-salaried action to help other people outside their professional and family time (this definition applies to all volunteers, youth, elderly people, etc.).
A bénévole acts in his/her organisation without being bound to its structure by any duration or frequency other than the rules that may have been optionally and freely consented to in a mutual agreement. The bénévole is not subject to any subordination.
Bénévoles participate in their organisations’ activities without receiving any financial compensation. However, they may be reimbursed for the costs incurred by their activity. A bénévole does not receive a salary.
There are two types of bénévolat: "formal", exerted in an organisation, and "informal", also known as "direct bénévolat" or "proximity bénévolat", which is expressed by one-shot, non-permanent help (collecting toys, helping neighbours, etc.).
Volunteering is another form of commitment (in a more formal legal framework defined by the public authorities, unlike bénévolat). Unlike the bénévoles, volunteers are compensated (financial compensation).
The various schemes are governed by rules of their own. Law no.2010-241 of 10 March 2010 bearing on the civic service has however brought together several civic service schemes: charitable volunteering, international administrative volunteering, international business volunteering, international solidarity volunteering and European voluntary service. This form of commitment often responds to a general interest mission and is usually exercised in non-profit organisations or with legal entities governed by public law. In addition, volunteer status is governed by regulatory texts (laws and decrees) providing a restrictive legal framework.