Local currencies, a real alternative?

For ten years, Complementary Local Currencies (CLC) have been flourishing in France. Citizens are getting involved to consume better, on a local scale, and to fight against the financial speculation of the capitalist system. Projects with democratic, social and ecological values, in parallel to the classic economic circuit.

A euro spent in a department store is not trivial. It will travel through the global monetary system to finance other projects, perhaps far removed from the values and ideals of its original owner. Moreover, this euro, used in the supermarket, has probably not favored the local economy and businesses. Rather, it has contributed to the global food industry and the pollution that accompanies it. It is from this observation that many local currency projects in France were born.

In the years 2006/2007, a program financed by European funds is born in France: SOL (movement of experimentation of local currencies). It is in charge of setting up prototypes of local currencies. The ones that emerged in 2010 were born of this breeding ground. Moreover, after the crisis of 2008, the idea that it is necessary to find monetary and financial alternatives is growing.

Today, in France, about 80 local currencies are in circulation and 53 in the pipeline. Leur principe est simple : une unité de monnaie locale est égale à un euro. Des bureaux de change permettent aux utilisateurs de transformer leur monnaie et de la réutiliser dans les commerces partenaires. Le réseau est constitué de produits et services basés sur un territoire défini. Quant aux Euros collectés par l’association de la monnaie locale lors du change, ils sont placés dans une banque éthique. En France, c’est la Nef qui est utilisée dans deux-tiers des cas. Transparente, elle partage les projets qu’elle finance et qui participent tous au « développement local d’une économie durable au service de l’humain ».

« I realized that there was no point in waiting for states and institutions to hear us and act on our behalf. »

It was also to this bank that Lucas Rochette-Berlon turned when he created his association in 2016, « A Currency for Paris: Fishing »: « I was very much into protest. But after the COP21, I realized that it was useless to wait for states and institutions to hear us and act in our place. So I looked for the common point between the ecological, democratic and social crisis and I deduced that the economy and money in its current form were a common factor. And what could I build as an alternative? A local currency. » Barely 18 years old, he was joined by other young people. A « bunch of kids » who quickly showed what they were capable of. Today, La Pêche is in circulation in 15 arrondissements of Paris and 21 communes in the inner suburbs. It is used by 2,000 individuals and 200 service providers. 

An impact that is difficult to quantify

These figures are rather low when compared to the population of the territory. The slowness of their development is one of the main criticisms made of local currencies after ten years of existence in France. For many of them, the territorial transformations envisaged at the beginning have not been achieved. Only the Eusko, the local currency of the Basque Country, seems to have succeeded. More than one and a half million units are in circulation for 3,800 users and more than 1,000 professionals. This makes it the most widely used local currency in Europe.

But for Jérôme Blanc, an economist specialising in local currencies, even if the case is exceptional, the system is insufficient to speak of a real global alternative: « The extension of the Eusko is important and seems to be accelerating, but in terms of users, 3,200 is a little more than 1% of the population, which is starting to be very significant. The inhabitants do not only buy local goods and services. I don’t think, in perspective, that we can have a territory that is monetarily self-sufficient. »

However, merchant networks are developing. Naémie, 20 years old, has been using the Stück, Strasbourg’s local currency, for a year: « It’s getting easier to use it because there are more and more different places. Before it was a lot of bulk shops and now there are bars, restaurants, psychologists, physiotherapists… » In some areas of France, it is quite possible to buy food, hygiene products, some health services and to have your bike repaired in local currencies.

Association Le Stück

There is no study that precisely measures the impact of local currencies on territories in France. In 2016, ADEME published a report, Les monnaies locales complémentaires environnementales: Etat des lieux, impacts environnementaux et efficacité économique. Anne-Cécile Ragot, founder of the association TAOA, whose mission is to support and promote the development of social currencies, is involved in the study. « The conclusion of the report is that there is not enough data available to measure the impact of local currencies. It is a difficult and tedious task, and citizens’ associations clearly lack the means to carry it out. The Sol Movement is expected to launch an impact study soon to fill this gap. In Fortaleza, in the north-east of Brazil, Banco Palmas (a community bank that has set up a local currency, editor’s note) carried out this work a few years ago. Every four years, they surveyed a sample of 1,000 people about their consumption inside and outside the neighbourhood for three categories of products (food, hygiene and household products). It was door-to-door, so it took a lot of time. They were able to measure that, before the launch of the local currency, only 20% of users said they bought inside the neighbourhood, compared with 93% 15 years later. This is one of the few figures we have on the impact of local currencies, and it is essential because it proves that these schemes can fulfil their promises if the necessary resources are allocated.

A virtuous circle generated by citizens

In France, only the Eusko has a quantifiable impact. In 2018, the currency passed the one million mark in circulation. A first in Europe. It has also succeeded in supporting the local economy since 56% of the network’s professionals have taken on at least one new local supplier to reuse their eusko. And in 2029, 29,066 eusko were donated to 50 associations. These are exceptional but very rare figures. For Jérôme Blanc, there is another parameter to take into account in the impact of local currencies: « There is another important lever which is the construction of citizenship. People get together for a fairly long period of time to define the rules, the name and the reason for the currency. It is interesting because this process contributes to a democratic awakening around a central issue, which is money.

Citizen participation is essential for the proper functioning of the currency. The feeling of belonging to a group is very important in bringing users together. « The Basque Country has a strong local identity, but also a strong associative culture, which undoubtedly contributes to the success of the Eusko, » emphasises Anne-Cécile Ragot.

« The problem today is not that the Euro is European, but that it is a single currency. »

From these citizens’ meetings, the values that are true to local currencies emerge: solidarity, democracy, ecology and consumption in short circuits. This is a philosophy that member businesses must share. The association will check that the goods and services sold correspond to the ethics of the local currency. A network is then created at the territorial level, with a sort of label that assures users that the production and distribution of the traders are approved because they promote the local economy. In the end, this creates a directory of good addresses for citizens.

The aim is also to encourage company managers to buy from the region. Thanks to the network, they can identify local producers and establish partnerships. From an economic and ecological point of view, it is better to have products delivered close to home. But this does not only work with goods. Services also participate in this virtuous circle. Why not hire cleaning staff from a company that helps reintegrate people who are far from employment? Transactions made in local currency can then promote a fairer and more responsible economy.

A complementary rather than an alternative role

But to pay taxes or take the train, the Euro remains indispensable. For Lucas Rochette-Berlon, « the objective is not to replace the Euro, it is to set up a biodiversity of currencies. The problem today is not that the Euro is European, but that it is a single currency. That’s why, when there is a mortgage crisis in the United States, we find ourselves ten years later in France still having problems because of this event.

Jérôme Blanc adds: « There is a distance between the citizens and the Euro. They elect political representatives at national level, but the resulting governments have no control over the evolution of the Euro, except in the event of an extraordinary crisis. To have an influence on the monetary level, citizens can go through the construction of citizen devices such as local currencies ». According to him, these mechanisms would really have an alternative role to the national currency in « the apocalyptic hypothesis of the collapse of the monetary system » – a fairly small risk – or « a major crisis like in Argentina, where banks strongly limit withdrawals and the use of their currency, or even close down ».

The power of politics

Some elected officials do not hesitate to support their citizens in these projects. The Bayonne town hall, for example, compensates elected volunteers and allows users to pay for certain public services, such as the municipal swimming pool, in local currency. This was a decision that had to be fought for. There was a tug of war between the town hall and the prefecture of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques on this subject. However, the 2014 law on the social and solidarity economy legally recognises complementary local currencies.

In 2018, Bayonne City Council was finally authorised to be paid and to pay in Eusko. The way has been opened for other territories. In Grenoble, even the mayor receives a small part of his allowance in local currency. 

For Naémie, a user of Strasbourg’s local currency, these actions should be developed: « When I talk about the Stück around me, the main obstacle to its use is that people don’t know about it. In my opinion, the city should communicate more on this subject since it is to help local producers.

In Paris, La Pêche is also seeking commitments from elected officials. For the next municipal elections, the association is trying to raise their awareness: « We are meeting with all the heads of the lists to have them fill in a questionnaire. We are asking them if they intend to use the local currency, support it, pay themselves with it, etc. We will put them online so that they can be consulted. We will put them online so that voters can make up their own minds. But the objective of this mandate is for elected representatives to take the subject seriously, and this can start with receiving their allowance in peach.

A favourable context for the emergency

The currency will also become electronic in 2020, like many others in France. Digitalisation facilitates certain procedures and makes it possible to bring more people together. According to the founder of La Pêche, we need to move quickly to implement the social and ecological transition, « to avoid the most devastating impacts of global warming ».

On the citizens’ side, the conditions seem to be right for a more massive adhesion to local currencies. In 2017, the national survey « The French, local consumption, and digital », showed that 8 out of 10 French people think that consuming locally (using independent and local professionals) reduces the impact on the environment. And 86% that consuming locally can be a response to current social issues (unemployment, etc.). It is also clear that the Internet is an important lever since 93% of French people use it to identify and locate local professionals.

For Anne-Cécile Ragot, « Local is more than just a fashion, it is a real underlying trend. The study shows that nearly one in four French people are followers of ‘localism’. Many consumers want to change their habits, and the local currency merchant directories can help with this change. For this specialist in the subject, all the cards are in place for it to work: « We have 15 years of research and development behind us, the concept of local currencies is now well modelled thanks to the abundance of experiences whose feedback and good practices are shared with the whole network. The challenge is no longer the conceptualisation of an innovative alternative currency model but its operational implementation. Today, the political context, the regulatory framework, the technological advances in digital payment solutions, the awareness of a necessary ecological and social transition, and the accompanying changes in consumption and production patterns are all factors that give us hope for an imminent change of scale for complementary and citizen local currencies.