In 2022, the solo self-employment rate in France was approximately 7.7% of the working population (15-74), slightly below the European Union average (9.6%). Solo self-employed workers accounted for about 6.6% and 8.8% of the working population of women and men respectively, and they were 60.6% of the total self-employed. In the period 2007-2022, there was a sharp rise in the number of solo self-employed workers of approximately 65.2%. Such growth was mainly due to the increase of women, migrants and late-career solo self-employed workers. The expansion of the solo self-employed has involved mainly high-skilled professional positions. Estimations show that 2.7% of the solo self-employed can be classified as economically dependent self-employed (i.e. solo self-employed who work mainly for one client and do not decide their working hours), a share well below the European Union average (5.0%).

In terms of legal status, since there is no definition of independent workers or autonomous workers in French labour law, solo self-employed workers are defined as those workers who are not subordinate. Scholars and case-law have had a fundamental role in France in clarifying the boundaries between employment and self-employment. Key factors that courts consider, among others, are the frequency of the instruction, the monitoring of performance, and power to sanction. Part VII of the Labour Code has extended the scope of labour protection to some workers, such as journalists, performers, home workers, sales representative, etc. French labour law is also characterised by peculiar legal devices concerning the hybrid area of work. In particular, the ‘auto-entrepreneur’ regime concerns self-employed workers pursuing a small scale activity who benefit from a simplified registration process as well as a simplified method of calculating social security contributions and income tax. ‘Salaried entrepreneurs’ are instead freelancers who are employed by Cooperatives d’Activité et d’Emploi, which support project creators in launching new businesses. Moreover, high-skilled workers can opt to work for a portage salarial company, which allows workers to perform jobs for several clients, enjoying administrative services, such as invoicing and recovery of payment. In this way, while working on their projects, both salaried entrepreneurs and porté consultants can benefit from the security and social protection typical of a dependent employment contract.

As far as collective representation is concerned, trade unions – historically more focused on defending wage-employed workers – have recently tried to represent new categories of self-employed workers. During the first fieldwork project, initiatives were followed within Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT), Confédération française de l’encadrement – Confédération générale des cadres (CFE-CGC), Confédération générale du travail (CGT), Force Ouvrière (FO) and Union syndicale Solidaires. After the introduction of the ‘auto-entrepreneur’ regime in 2008 for solo self-employed workers, several associations emerged, both to defend this new simplified regime and to provide services to these workers. In these cases, activities were followed within Union des auto-entrepreneurs (UAE) and Fédération Nationale des auto-entrepreneurs et microentrepreneurs (FNAE). Moreover, although most French employers’ associations represent big firms, interviews were realised within the Union des entreprises de proximité (U2P), which includes mainly trade-persons and craft workers. During the first fieldwork, two freelance cooperatives were also analysed, such as Smart and Grands Ensemble, as well as portage salarial companies. Finally, the most relevant grassroots group organising platform food-delivery riders was investigated: the Collectif des Livreurs Autonomes de Paris (CLAP).

In the second fieldwork, we selected some of these initiatives to conduct in-depth case studies while illustrating the diversity of organisations representing solo self-employed workers. We thus followed the activities of a trade union organising self-employed visual artists within the CGT, the Syndicat National des Artistes Plasticien·nes (SNAP). In parallel, we continued collecting data on the FNAE, a self-employed association, and on the CLAP, a grassroot group.

While conducting the two fieldworks in France, the researcher was hosted at the Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire pour la Sociologie Économique (LISE), Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM) in Paris.