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FRANCE: Passionate About Principled Trade

Hilaire Avril

PARIS, Dec 1 2008 (IPS) - Just like humanitarian relief, fair trade is a field that attracts passionate individuals with complex world views. Most are not in it for the money. But it is also rife with controversy, as personalities driven by conviction often clash over principles and practice. No two fair traders are alike, which probably explains many of their arguments.

The French Platform for Fair Trade (called Plate-Forme pour le Commerce Équitable in French) is one of France’s largest collectives, representing 39 organisations.

To find the Platform’s offices, one must reach the outer limits of Paris’s northern ring road, cross a disused train yard covered in weeds, locate the railroad workers’ union building (easily made out with its broken windows and bright red posters calling for strikes) and climb up the flights of dusty stairs to a corridor with mostly empty offices.

This is where Julie Maisonhaute, an agronomic engineer, heads a team of women in their thirties who coordinate and promote fair trade in France. Maisonhaute and her colleagues are quite representative of the younger generation of French fair trade activists.

‘‘No one is here for the money, given the modest wages the PFCE pays,’’ she says. ‘‘But they are still incredibly competitive positions to get, because few jobs allow you to work for something you feel strongly about.’’

All members of her team have a similar story. ‘‘We come from different backgrounds – economics, agronomy or international relations – and most of us have graduate degrees. We have all lived a few years in the South,’’ she explains.

Maisonhaute was ‘‘a traveller with a conscience’’, backpacking in-between semesters at her French university. When she graduated, she was already involved with several non-governmental organisations, eventually joining one working in fair trade.

Further up the northern Paris subway line are the offices of Minga, a federation which has been representing 80 small fair trade producers, farmers and importers for the past 20 years. The federation’s offices are a ten-minute walk from the train stop, along the banks of a Seine tributary, across the grey streets of a working-class and largely immigrant suburb.

Michel Besson, the founder of Minga and a long-time Fair Trade activist who is in his fifties, has a rather different story. A former factory worker in the a small town in the centre of France, he decided to follow his partner, a nurse, when she moved to Colombia to assist rural villages in developing health care structures in 1983.

‘‘We spent two years in the mountain, in a village in the province of Cauca, until the guerrillas kicked us out,’’ Besson recalls. ‘‘We had to move to Bogota, and that’s where I met craftspeople who couldn’t find an outlet for their pottery in the hillside slums.’’

‘‘When we got back to France in 1987, we founded an association to promote crafts from developing countries, and that’s how Minga was eventually created,’’ he reminisces with a smile.

‘‘Historically, fair trade in France was a religious initiative,’’ Besson says, alluding to Catholic Church committees which first started buying goods from small cooperatives in poor countries in the 1950s rather than simply donating money.

But those were the old days. According to Besson, fair trade now has everything to do with politics. ‘‘Citizens must reclaim the economy,’’ he says between two cigarette puffs. ‘‘Trade is not a subject taught in school, which is a shame because the way trade is organised determines the lives of so many of us around the planet.

‘‘We should start by making sure the peasants who feed us get a fair deal,’’ he adds.

Putting philosophy into practice, the Minga offices house a documentation centre where the association helps prospective fair traders develop their operation.

As Besson walks in to pick up a copy of their latest publication – a slim paperback summarising the history of ethics and trade from Aristotle to the present day – a tall Senegalese in his twenties and his blonde girlfriend are explaining their business plan to import biologically grown nuts from northern Senegal to France.

Minga helps them to navigate customs and to find outlets for their products. But rather than holding a hard-nosed business discussion, everyone trades news about the state of the coming harvests in West Africa, which is threatened by the latest bout of drought affecting the region.

However, the professionalisation of fair trade, using the latest marketing and consumer survey techniques, is a rather recent trend.

Nicolas Messio, the head of the Alter Mundi network of Parisian fair trade shops, spearheads the movement. Now in his thirties, he graduated from a business school. But the careers his classmates were choosing did not appeal to him. ‘‘Fair Trade was a personal choice, as far as I’m concerned,’’ he remembers.

‘‘I took this class on corporate social responsibility and that sparked a lingering interest in ethical commerce,’’ he explains, sporting trendy black, fair trade sweater and jeans and relaxing over a cup of fair trade espresso in Alter Mundi’s fashionable Bastille shop.

‘‘Fair trade needs to get with the programme,’’ Messio argues, alluding to the bitter and ongoing debate between operators who favour stacking supermarket shelves with ‘‘ethical’’ products and those critical of retailing multinationals’ labour practices.

‘‘Our approach is closer to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ way of doing business. We start by looking at the market, not the producer,’’ he adds. Under his direction, Alter Mundi carefully studies its market. ‘‘Seventy-five percent of our clients are women, typically in their twenties, educated and with a social conscience.’’

‘‘This is true of all our shops, but particularly so in this neighbourhood (Paris’s 11th arrondissement, or municipal division), which is very ‘bobo’,’’ Messio explains, using the French diminutive for ‘‘bourgeois-boheme’’ (Parisian slang for trendy and lefty) with self-deprecating irony.

Alter Mundi thinks diversity is not only a matter for producers, but for retailers as well. ‘‘We hire most of our staff from vulnerable backgrounds, many are disabled, ex-convicts or former addicts who need a helping hand to get back on their feet,’’ he says.

Whatever their ethics and economics, fair traders are as unique as the coffee beans they import. It almost makes one wish they would, once in a while, drink from the same cup.

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