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1At various levels of the social hierarchy, forms of employment are being entirely transformed as a result of both increased flexibility and the shifting of responsibility to employees, who are becoming “entrepreneurs in their own career” (Zimmermann 2011). These transformations are producing hybrid forms of two legally established ideal types: Permanent salaried employment, and self-employment (Menger 2003; Caveng 2011; Petit and Thévenot 2006). In the majority of cases, these consist of exemptions under which workers are still salaried employees, which sometimes fall under the “special employment conditions” defined by INSEE (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies).

2Increasingly, these transformations are also producing a new group of workers operating outside employee status. These low-ranking self-employed workers, whose recent growth owes a great deal to incentivizing legislative changes such as the introduction of “auto-entrepreneur” [sole trader] status in France (Abdelnour, 2013), partly work in subordinate professional roles, or at least ones that offer relatively poor remuneration and little room for maneuver. These individuals, described by some as “economically dependent self-employed workers” (Supiot 1999; Mondon-Navazo 2016), are attracting more and more attention, notably due to their mass mobilization through digital platforms. Chauffeurs of private hire cars, bicycle couriers, and self-employed construction and personal care workers are all part of this movement, which is still little documented in its form and scope but goes far beyond French territory (Schor and Attwood-Charles 2017), and which consists of taking activities at the bottom of the labor market out of employee status.

3These self-employed workers pose important political questions, which are driving sociologists to rethink several of their areas of study. First, the question of their viability, due to their high exposure to risk, in economic terms (with the lack of guaranteed wages, decreased stability of work, and fluctuation in what are already relatively low incomes), and in terms of healthcare (less social security). Second, the conditions of the structuring of such professional groups leads to questions about the construction of an identity, the motives of self-organization that might lead to collective action, and the definition of a clear sphere of specific tasks and competencies.

4Although research has begun to document and analyze these changes, the recent nature of developments precludes an historical perspective. [1] However, the characteristics of these new types of self-employed workers—the removal of subordinate activities from employee status, and the structuring of a professional group despite its precarity, lack of organization, and position of economic dependence—dates back further for some professions. Among others, this is the case for loggers in France (Gros 2014). Until the 1970s, loggers formally worked as salaried employees called “bûcherons-tâcherons” [piecework loggers] despite the fact that in many ways they resembled self-employed workers: They were paid a per-piece rate, owned their own working tools, and worked independently on site (Schepens 2008; Gros 2014). [2] Companies then began to employ them as service providers, and progressively less as salaried workers, with two main effects: It not only produced an increasingly large group of non-salaried loggers, but also led the state to regulate this new group of workers.

5Indeed, taking this laboring workforce out of employee status required the creation of conditions for a self-employed labor market. Such conditions included the viability of service providers, whose role remained extremely similar to that of salaried workers on forestry sites, but whose social security and career were no longer legally supported by legal integration within an organization. This condition was all the more crucial because, as is often the case, at the heart of this process of removal from employee status lay the issue of labor costs, due to the intermittent and dangerous nature of the work (Elyakime 1987; Schepens 2005b; Morice 2006). In order to stabilize the forestry service provider market, which was affected by numerous bankruptcies, the status of “entrepreneur de travaux forestiers” (ETF) [forestry work contractor] was legally created in 1986 along with regional committees designed to regulate entry to the profession. Individuals could now work on forestry sites on behalf of a company without being employed by them, once one of these committees had confirmed that they did indeed have the required competencies and had approved their application.

6This article takes a closer look at this form of regulation. By examining the creation and implementation of the regulations that existed until recently around setting up as a self-employed logger in France, it aims to reveal some of the issues created by taking activities at the bottom of the labor market out of employee status.

7Firstly, on reassessing the creation of this self-employed logger status in the light of the literature on the sociology of employment and professions, I look back at the introduction of these regulations, showing that they took the form of professional limitations. However, these limitations were imposed from above, suggesting a form of control that was largely out of the hands of the workers. Secondly, I show that these limitations were not only instigated, but also implemented from above. This reveals the low level of worker organization, and also made it difficult for committees to assess the competencies required to carry out the job. Third, by analyzing the selection procedure, I show that committee members were not so much looking for good workers as viable entrepreneurs, who they identified not by professional qualifications (experience and technical training) but by educational credentials tailored to the market (in bookkeeping and management). As such, these professional limitations reveal a slide from an “appeal to professionalism” (Boussard et al 2010), built on the model of the skilled laborer or “tradesman,” (Mazaud 2012) to an appeal to entrepreneurship in which what makes a good professional is, above all, the skillset required to manage a business.

A non-salaried professional group at the bottom of the labor market

8The use of the terms “bottom” and “top” in this article does not follow a miserabilist definition, but rather aims to focus attention on the effects of the hierarchy of positions occupied by the groups involved in the structuring of professions—whether in the labor market or in the social hierarchy. [3] I will therefore begin by explaining how loggers can be seen as situated at the bottom of the labor market, before identifying the specific questions this situation poses for the sociology of professions, and setting out in detail the way in which they are empirically approached in this article.

Site laborers historically distanced from employee status

9The work carried out by ETF can be situated at the bottom of the labor market due to the history of the trade, its position in the labor market, and the social class with which it is associated. From a historical point of view, logging has much in common with subordinate work, as today’s ETFs are the result of site laborers being taken out of employee status. These salaried loggers were (and still are) called “pieceworkers”: They were paid by the job, based on the volume of timber they had cut down on site, owned their own tools, and were able to work for several different employers at the same time. As these characteristics were so similar to those of self-employment, in 1946, presumption of employee status was legally established to remove this ambiguity (Gros 2014). This meant that forestry site laborers were presumed to be salaried employees of the company managing the site, and to be covered by employment rights, even if they appeared to be exempt due to the form of their work.

10In 1972, the law extended the obligation to insure employees against occupational accidents to employers in the agricultural sector. This resulted in forestry company managers rapidly and heavily outsourcing logging in order to avoid having to take on the high social security costs for site laborers who were otherwise highly autonomous in carrying out their work (Schepens 2005a). Agricultural social security funds were affected by the rapid proliferation of forestry work companies, which were often single-employee and did not survive: Bankruptcies were frequent, social security costs were high due to the rate of occupational accidents, and a reportedly significant share of undeclared work increased the deficit at the Mutualité sociale agricole (MSA), the social security provider for agricultural professions in France. [4] This drove MSA, in conjunction with the state, to regulate entry to the market (Schepens 2008).

11In 1986, with a view to increasing the viability of this non-salaried labor market, a legal decree established ETF status while regulating access to the role. Presumption of employee status waiver committees were created in each region, meaning that only loggers for whom the presumption of employee status had been waived by a committee could work on forestry sites without being employees. These committees assessed the ability of applicants to survive as non-salaried loggers, primarily by reviewing their competencies (qualifications and experience). If they were approved by a committee, loggers could join the non-salaried agricultural social security scheme as ETFs. On forestry sites in 2017, a little over half of foresters had ETF status, while the other half were still salaried workers paid a per-piece rate, or piecework loggers. [5]

12Although the process of setting up as an ETF came to be regulated, loggers are in a unique situation in that the substance of their work is relatively similar whether or not they are on a piecework salary or self-employed. This technical work consists of using a chainsaw to log trees on a site managed by a company (either their employer or client), measuring the volume of timber logged, and keeping records. These latter trade-type tasks are much more important for self-employed workers, who have to keep much more regular records and look for new sites on a more active basis. For both types of logger, the work is physically demanding and arduous, as chainsaws are both heavy and noisy tools (Prévitali and Lornet 2009), as well as extremely dangerous. [6] As remuneration is low and entirely dependent on the quantity of work completed, knowing how to economize their physical strength is a major part of the ETF skillset. Furthermore, ETFs have very limited room for maneuver when it comes to the price of their services, which is often predetermined by the client (a forestry SME or the Office national des forêts, the French National Forestry Agency). It is therefore a manual trade in which the work is in many respects similar to that of a site laborer. From the point of view of the substance of work, the legal separation between self-employed and salaried workers remains fairly vague: These two groups resemble the pieceworkers described by Bernard Mottez (1960), who identifies forms of organization of manual labor prior to the strengthening of employment legislation (Morice 2006). Due to their position in the production chain and their working conditions, they can be described as subordinate workers.

13For the workers themselves, however, having self-employed status sets an individual apart from the rest, and ETFs are not seen as equivalent to pieceworkers. For some men from rural, working-class backgrounds, becoming an ETF represents a way to satisfy social aspirations when the local job market offers few opportunities for upward mobility (Gros 2015). It provides an alternative to stable salaried employment as a way of taking small upward social steps, even if these are strictly capped, since incomes remain fairly low, with no real prospect of being raised, [7] and ETFs very rarely have sufficient means to employ workers and become bosses. [8] Working as an ETF can also satisfy a certain ideal of self-employment present in the labor market (Weber 2009), and a desire to work independently outdoors. In this sense, it is in keeping with working-class practices and forms of socialization characteristic of men from the rural working class, who are introduced to outdoor manual labor, including forestry work, at an early age (Pinçon 1986). As such, the profession of ETF remains closely tied to the working-class world from which it sometimes enables individuals to set themselves apart. For these working-class men with limited education, meeting the committee’s administrative requirements (gathering “the paperwork,” providing evidence of their experience, and putting together an application) was often not an easy task.

Removal from employee status and regulating set up: Supervision or limitation?

14Logging is unique in that it is a subordinate activity taken out of employee status, which sets it apart from activities drawn from the domestic or informal economy, to develop sources of new jobs, as is the case with the care economy (Weber et al. 2014; Demazière 2008). These non-salaried workers became responsible not only for the technical side of their job, but also the sales-type tasks (bookkeeping, finding clients, maintaining relationships) that were required to cope with and limit the economic risk to which they were exposed. However, once they were no longer borne by employers, these risks were so great that in spite of everything they had to be shared collectively. As such, the limitations imposed on the professional group primarily served to protect social security funds from the high costs of this socialization of risk. The limitations therefore acted as a means of professional regulation, and one that appeared to be triply necessary due to the withdrawal of organizations and the impossibility of continuing to leave regulation of the activity to the market (Freidson 2001). In this case it was also a condition for the existence of these non-salaried subordinate workers. In other words, it made it possible to resolve a tension produced by the rapid proliferation of individuals who were working as laborers while running their own companies.

15The chosen means of regulation was neither directly demographic, through a fixed quota, nor a way to socialize the risks and uncertainties linked to the intermittent nature of the job, as in the case of performing artists on intermittent contracts in France, for whom access to the market is open, but access to the social security scheme is closed (Menger 2003; Grégoire 2013). As is often the case, a decision was taken to close the market by regulating the characteristics of workers, through selection at the point of entry. The right to exercise the profession itself was therefore subject to prior approval, following the confirmation of professional competency.

16This strategy of regulating professions through limitations is a relatively common mechanism (Paradeise 1984; Karpik 1995; Ollivier 2012). It relates to both concerns about structuring professional groups, and market concerns, by “preventing new entrants from further increasing competitive struggle” (François 2008, 271). [9] The limitations are usually based on legislation and certification, credentials, or qualifications, thus ensuring a monopoly or defining a state-recognized jurisdiction (Abbott 1988). Thus, in the case of the ETFs, since the committees controlled the demography of the service provider market (its size) and influenced its morphology (its form and segmentation), they can be seen as a mechanism for the professionalization of forestry work, and thus—as Schepens (2008) argues—are in part responsible for structuring the ETFs as a professional group.

17In my view, however, the creation of these limitations indicates that they were imposed externally. Limitation was not therefore a strategy of self-defense by the professional group: It neither constituted a demand for professional autonomy guaranteed by the state, as is the case with chambers of commerce or skilled trades (Zarca 1986); nor a way for the professionals themselves to define ETF status; nor an attempt to restrict a professional territory, whether by quotas, as in the case of taxi drivers (Lejune 2015) or certification, as with the “Meilleurs ouvriers de France” competition for skilled trades (Collas 2015). At the time, the group of loggers did not have a sufficient level of organization to have instigated the regulation. Salaried logger unions, which were very powerful in the early twentieth century, disappeared during the inter-war period (Pennetier 1980; Pigenet 1993), and self-employed logger associations did not emerge until the early 1990s.

18Equally, the limitations were not intended to professionalize the trade in the way we might initially assume, i.e. by improving service quality, which is the most common challenge for both dominant groups (Karpik 1995; Ollivier 2012) and dominated groups (Juilliard and Leroy 2014). They were not designed to solve a problem with the quality of work, but to bolster business survival. This means that they were not accompanied by any subsequent managerial inspection of work quality (Boussard 2008; Kuhlman and Saks 2008): Once they are authorized to set up, the ETFs are very rarely inspected. [10]

19Although the sociology of professions has largely left behind the “established profession” model and adopted the description of ordinary professions (Collins 1990; Hughes [1971] 1984), there is still limited understanding of how work is structured in overlooked employment sectors. In these cases, as in this one, workers are neither self-managed through professional organizations, nor are fighting to do so. We must therefore remain highly circumspect about these forms of “professionalization” imposed by decree. In many cases, it is misleading to call them “professionalization,” as they are responses to external (political and managerial) issues rather than ways to protect professionalism, particularly in relation to jobs done by subordinate workers (Tripier et al 2011, 288). Didier Demazière explains that, in the groups who are least privileged in terms of distribution of resources and who struggle to structure themselves, the strategy of self-defining professions as collective actors can blur into another strategy, “instigated by the state, which sets out the rules governing the exercise of an activity without imposing conditions of entry and modes of working in the hands of a professional organization” (Demazière 2008, 46). These “appeals to professionalism” (Boussard et al 2010) therefore create a situation in which the form of the group and the limitations imposed on it are defined under pressure from potential clients rather than from organizations that represent the group, as is often the case in care professions.

20It is in this sense that we can call the limitations imposed on ETFs limitations “from above.” This term, subsequently used without inverted commas, is taken from the expression used by Julia Evetts, borrowed from Charles McClelland (1990), to distinguish professionalization “from within” the group from the professionalization “from above” that she observed in the army (Evetts 2003, 763). It has previously been translated into French using terms that literally mean “professionalization ’from outside’” (Tripier et al 2011, 287) or “exogenous professionalization” (Boussard et al 2010, 18), which emphasize the opposition between the inside and outside of the group. Such terms highlight the hierarchized and unequal dimension of the phenomenon, but we should note that Evetts uses the term in relation to groups within organizations with a highly institutionalized hierarchy (which explains why the translation used by Valérie Boussard et al is not, in fact, unsound). This is very different from the more diffuse and less integrated forms demonstrated by the ETF, for whom the inequalities are much less visible unless we look closely. [11]

21Furthermore, incorporating this unequal nature into the analysis makes it possible to focus attention on Evetts’s suggestion (taken from Valérie Fournier [1999] and Peter Miller and Nikolas Rose [1990], themselves inspired by the work of Michel Foucault) that certain methods of professionalization can be seen as ways of controlling professionals remotely, instilling behaviors, practices, and identities that contribute to a disciplinary logic of governing subjects through competition (Evetts 2003, 770). In the case of unsalaried subordinate workers, such as loggers, this approach identifies the ambivalent nature of limitations from above: Are they driven by professionalization, or professional control? To what extent do limitations have the effect of controlling, by prejudice and through selection, the behaviors and characteristics of workers?

22To recap, these limitations established a professional group, at the very least by giving it a status, access to a specific social security scheme, and a name. But the limitations were not obvious signs of professionalization. On one hand, they were imposed from outside as a remedy, a way for the state and social security funds to regulate what they judged to be a failing market. However, they were also highly fragmentary, with the professional group having little structure and being poorly represented. This mode of selection, defining a professional group while also controlling working-class access to self-employment, offers a useful perspective on the tensions created by taking subordinate activities out of employee status. What role did the committee play in regulating this group of non-salaried workers? What competencies did it expect and monitor? How did these expectations shape the professional group?

23To implement this professional limitation, two factors need to be determined: The actors who would carry out the selection—difficult in the case of workers with no organization or representation—and the competencies and qualifications needed to overcome the selection barrier. Individuals’ competencies are not an objective property that can simply be observed, but “have a conventional nature and as such require agreement on what makes them valuable, and on the persons and tools capable of defining and certifying them” (Marchal and Rieucau 2006, 93). The construction and identification of the competencies of non-salaried subordinate workers were the key issues faced by these committees, and this article will go on to analyze them, after considering the methodological conditions for their assessment.

Data and methodology: Local analysis of a fragmentary professionalization

24The lack of centralized data is a further indication of the fragmentary nature of this professionalization. Neither the state, the Ministry of Agriculture, nor the French agricultural insurance scheme (MSA – Mutualité sociale agricole) kept records of the selection process. This is compounded by a very incomplete understanding of the ETF population, on whom very little data is available. At best, the MSA keeps a list of companies with their location and some financial data about them for the purposes of calculating social security contributions. This lack of data has led the authors of several publications in this area to focus their efforts locally, doing their best to provide quantified figures using official data (FIBRA 2010; Laurier 2006). These studies have provided information, albeit still approximate, on the size of the population and the longevity of companies, but never on their properties or entry criteria (in his study of ETF professionalization, Schepens [2008] did not have access to data from these committees, likely leading him to overestimate the consistency of such professionalization per location).

25Studying the committees makes it possible to both understand the mechanisms of selection (who did and did not overcome the barriers to entry), and describe the characteristics of this community. This was my aim in carrying out an investigation of a regional committee as part of a long-term field study between 2007 and 2014 on non-salaried loggers in this region. [12] It consisted of interviews, work observations, and analyzing company and administrative data. This research enabled me to provide a dual analysis of a non-salaried subordinate labor market and the role of self-employment in working-class social mobility (Gros 2015).

26To understand these limitations, in this article I have specifically made use of materials gathered during a study of the Direction régionale de l’alimentation, de l’agriculture et de la forêt (DRAAF) [Regional Directorate for Food, Agriculture, and Forestry]. These include interviews with the director, who chaired the committee, and a large number of its archives such as legal directives relating to the presumption of employee status waiver committees, orders concerning the composition of the committee, job applications, and the minutes of committee meetings for the entirety of its term, from 2009 to 2012. I have subjected these files and minutes to qualitative and quantitative analysis. As part of the field study, I also conducted interviews with individuals from the forestry sector who had seats in this committee (the director of an SME, and salaried employees of professional associations). Lastly, I consulted and read the legal texts and specialist literature on the ETFs.

27This approach follows a tradition of research using materials from records created by administrative bodies, from school records (Cayouette-Remblière 2015) to applications from foreign workers (Bruno et al. 2006; Laurens 2008), and family court judgments (Collectif Onze 2013). For practical reasons, such research is often based on the case study of a local institution representing a national administrative body (e.g. a middle school, or a court), which enables access to archives that are not centralized at a national level, not accessible to the public, or which the researcher has to gather him/herself. These institutions cannot be seen as being representative of all institutions of the same type: Findings from a study of one regional committee cannot simply be transposed automatically to others, no more than those taken from analysis of a court, or a middle school located in the projects. They do however reveal the way in which an institution implements national directives at a local level. They form case studies that analysis must bring together (Passeron and Revel 2005), cases that can be linked and compared to other cases, as long as they are clearly defined (Dumez 2015). The different regional committees worked in relatively different ways, precisely because there was little standardization in how they were run, and because they had a relatively high level of autonomy. Nevertheless, even if, unlike other research objects that are better grounded in the scientific literature, little is known about presumption of employee status waiver committees, a number of precautions can be taken to ensure that the case under study is not an aberration that fundamentally differs from all other cases. Here, these consisted of telephone interviews conducted with two committee chairs from different regions to demonstrate comparable concerns and reasoning. In addition, the findings from Florent Schepens’s study conducted in another region—although it did not investigate these committees directly—do not contradict the observations I have drawn from my region of study.

Box 1. – Data collection from applications and committee decisions

The study database contains all individuals who submitted their first application to set up as an ETF during the term of the committee, from 2009 to 2012. This population consisted of 101 individuals—a small number that in no way prevents quantitative analysis, as its size is in fact a constitutive property of the population. Furthermore, the group of individuals in the database is exhaustive and constitutes an ethnographic case study, which archives and interviews with committee members allow me to analyze further. It is not a sample and does not therefore require statistical generalization by inferential reasoning (Cayouette-Remblière 2015; Gros 2017).
A series of variables provide information about the candidates’ characteristics (age, residence, geographic origin, nationality, professional experience, level of general and forestry-related qualifications), the proposed work (type, material, etc.) and the committee’s decision (opinion and justification).
Finally, I should note that although the administrative files constitute a rich data source (Bruno et al 2006), they record only written information. Applicants were however sometimes present at committee meetings, which is not indicated in the files, and their presence certainly played a role in the assessment of their application (even if in his interview, the committee chair stated this is not the case). Although I had the advantage over historians of having been able to conduct interviews with committee members, I would have benefited, as have others (Cartier 2001), from being able to observe the meetings in progress. The use of quantitative techniques to analyze these archived records should not obscure the fact that they were sometimes supported by applicants in person, and that this presence is one of the determinants that escape analysis.

The difficulties of limitations imposed from above

28The creation of the limitations indicates that they were instigated from above. It remains to be seen whether they were also in fact implemented by individuals who, in one way or another, were distanced from applicants and in a position above them. Such a situation, as I will now demonstrate, would pose a number of difficulties for the committee responsible for imposing such limitations. First, having to assess the competencies of a group of workers for whom such skills are rather poorly defined, precisely because they are not organized and belong to subordinate segments of the labor market; and second, having to assess these competencies while being professionally, or even socially (in terms of social origins and upbringing) distanced from them. These forms of distancing make “cultural matching” less likely, and mean that the criteria valued by committee members and competencies held by applicants were less likely to coincide (Rivera 2012). It was therefore difficult for the committee to predict the ability of applicants to work as an ETF.

Selecting and assessing candidates at a distance from forestry sites

29The composition of the committees was determined by the decree of 1986. [13] In each region, the regional director for food, agriculture, and forestry appoints the members of the committee, which had to include representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and MSA, representatives of “the profession” (two individuals representing forestry professions, including at least one ETF), two representatives of salaried forestry workers, and four “qualified individuals with expertise in forestry work.” This official composition, while fairly hazy, left little scope for the ETFs and forestry work in general, with the wording of the decree confirming that the ETFs were chosen rather than chose themselves.

30This is made further apparent by an examination of the actual composition of the committee under study, which was chaired by Michel Pierrot, a high-ranking DRAAF (regional board of directors of food, agriculture and woodland) civil servant. [14] The ETFs were in fact absent from the committee. The representatives of forestry professions, supposed to protect the interests of “the profession,” were small business owners rather than ETFs: Due to the lack of structure among the ETFs, the term “profession” is taken to denote professionals from the timber industry, or in other words forestry operators and sawmill owners, and managers of SME. Here, this role was allocated to the owners of two of the region’s largest forestry management companies (with between thirty and fifty salaried employees). Although one of the two was also a service provider and, as such, held the status of ETF and occupied this seat on the committee, the majority of his work consisted of trading timber: Buying it, arranging for it to be logged, and then selling it. These two company owners were potential clients for ETFs in the region, and might even have been former employers of the applicants presenting themselves to the committee. They were also active members of regional business organizations in the timber trade, the only group in the sector with a minimal level of organization. [15] As a result, they represented the interests of companies deploying the services of the ETFs much more than those of the ETFs themselves.

31In a sense, two of the individuals on the committee with “expertise in forestry work” could be seen as closer to the interests of the ETFs due to their roles, but they were particularly highly educated. [16] If they represented the ETFs, it is therefore at a relative distance. [17] One was an instructor who provided training (notably in forestry) in a major agricultural high school in the region. The other, Frédéric Murat, represented ProFor, the regional professional association created in 1990 to support the activities of the ETFs and contribute to structuring the profession. He had explicitly voiced an ambition to dignify the profession: “You can’t just set up as an ETF. That’s not possible. It’s a profession. It doesn’t have to be regulated like it is for pharmacists or doctors, but still!” (Frédéric Murat, in 2009). However, while like similar professional associations in other regions (Schepens 2008), ProFor was designed to professionalize the work of ETFs, the educational and career path taken by its representative clearly distanced him from them (Box 2).

Box 2. – Frédéric Murat, a remote representative

Frédéric Murat (aged forty at the time of the study) has represented ProFor since 2000. He has never worked as an ETF, nor as a salaried site laborer, and is now a permanent employee of the association. He described having taken “the classic route,” revealing a highly education-focused and narrow view of entry to the profession: “After the troisième [ninth grade] I went to do a BEPA [vocational agricultural diploma] in forestry work, and after that I did a technical agricultural diploma in forestry work and a forestry work BTS [advanced technical diploma].” But despite having completed his training in 2000, during a period that was exceptionally favorable for forestry workers due to the aftermath of the major storm that occurred in December 1999, he did not set up as an ETF. While he did not discuss his reasons for turning away from manual labor, we might speculate that the level of education he had achieved allowed him to hope for better working conditions within management, far removed from subordinate site labor.
Although he met many ETFs over the course of his work, it was primarily those who were relatively well-qualified, termed the “modern” group by Florent Schepens: ETFs who have come up through school and can regularly be found in professional associations or as instructors in high schools specializing in forestry. This opposition between “modern” and “traditional” largely corresponds to an unequal familiarity with formal education, the dominant norms of bookkeeping, and views of environmental issues, and covers socially distinct economic practices. [18] Frédéric Murat thus holds a powerful but socially situated desire to structure the group.

32An examination of the composition of the body implementing the limitations thus indicates that the limitations were not only instigated, but also imposed, from outside the group. The ETFs did not therefore reach out to these committees as a tool of self-governance, even after their creation, and the professional associations resulting from this professionalization by decree not only formed a minority on the committee, but also sent representatives who are relatively distanced from the workers concerned. Contrary to what can be seen in many service or manual professions (such as farming and skilled trades), professional autonomy, understood as the “capacity of a group to influence the definition of its work” (Tripier et al 2011, 289) is not a clear characteristic of the ETFs as a professional group. [19]

33Eventually, the lack of group power over the nature of its own structuring was confirmed by recent legal changes. On January 1, 2013, the committees for waiving the presumption of employee status were scrapped by decree, with the regional director of agriculture and forestry henceforth making decisions on applications. This decision, which was justified as a way of bringing the sector into line with European service directives, follows a more general trend of established professions being transformed by European integration (Orzack 1994). [20] Paradoxically, in the name of a directive that prohibits applications to set up in a profession from being decided by competing operators, and has affected many professions now dispossessed of their capacity for self-regulation (Vigour 2008), here the decision affects committees within which these competing operators were not actually present in practice. Most importantly, it confirms the rudimentary nature of the professionalization of the ETFs, whose main body was removed without the slightest trace of protest.

34The origin and working methods of these committees for waiving the presumption of employee status therefore constitute an example of limitations imposed from above: Subordinate, now non-salaried workers, were selected by relatively well-off individuals from intermediate professions in the public sector (administrative officials and high-ranking civil servants), small business owners in the timber trade, or employees of professional associations. Their aim was less to improve the quality of service provided than to ensure the viability of workers despite the absence of guaranteed wages. To this end, they were tasked with managing the selection process, based on criteria enabling them to predict this future stability.

Criteria focusing on educational qualifications and professional experience

35The criteria for setting up as an ETF were defined at a national level, in the decree regulating the presumption of salary waiver. They fell into two categories: Operational autonomy, and ability and professional experience (see Table A1 in the Appendix).

36Operational autonomy was a fairly vague criterion designed to assess the practicality of the applicant’s plan for self-employment (whether they had their own equipment and potential clients, and had registered their business). This was not a discriminatory factor, as equipment is inexpensive and already owned by salaried loggers, and referring to potential clients did not commit them to anything. And indeed, as Michel Pierrot—the DRAAF committee chair—explained: “Usually they meet all the criteria. There’s no problem there.” Contrary to what might be expected, identification of the applicants who might be viable self-employed workers was not therefore based on these operational autonomy criteria.

37The criteria that came under closest examination, and which applicants had most difficulty meeting, were those for training and experience in the profession: The criteria that were expected to reveal their competencies. In 1986, these conditions were set out as a combination of education and professional experience. The fact that a decision was not taken to close entry to the profession simply at a certain level of education demonstrates the inadequate degree of educational formalization of the skills necessary for forestry work. Although the qualification requirements have since been raised, even today, professional experience represents a significant part of the conditions to be met. To set up as an ETF, an individual must have a suitable diploma, as is the case in other manual jobs: Hairdressers must have a CAP [vocational certificate], and fishermen must have a CAP or BEP [vocational diploma] to board a boat, etc. (Moysan-Loisel and Podevin 2008). But while in these latter cases qualifications are compulsory, applicants for ETF status may present sufficient experience as a salaried worker as an alternative. This is despite the fact that salaried logging work, unlike the professions mentioned above, legally requires neither qualifications nor experience—simply an employer. Thus, although it is subject to an educational barrier to entry, forestry does offer a non-academic route to self-employment.

38These criteria were reviewed at a regional level by the committees. To enable assessment of their applications, all applicants had to submit a set of documents providing evidence of their position, experience, and training, from which the MSA would put together an application and sent it to the committee. The committee then selected those who met the official criteria from the rest. In practice, however, these criteria were interpreted by the committee members, and as in the case of foreign workers’ files, the applications were assessed “follow[ing] a specific logic that cannot be reduced to the straightforward application of the regulatory and legislative framework” (Bruno et al 2006, 740). This was even more emphatically the case because the decree explicitly gave the committee leeway in its assessment.

39Difficulties arose when it came to assessing the competencies of applicants using indicators other than educational qualifications. Although professional experience was indeed among the evaluation criteria, individuals who had very limited empirical knowledge of forestry sites and were more familiar with the nomenclature of the French education system than with differences in professional experience, found this difficult to assess. [21] In addition, the need for professional experience to be administratively transparent imposed two requirements that particularly hindered applicants: Experience was measured by pay slips, and by the number of hours worked. However, firstly, forestry work is a common activity in rural communities without necessarily being a trade and, when it is, it is not necessarily declared (Gros 2015). As undeclared work can not be proven by legal documents, it did not count as experience in the eyes of the committee. Secondly, for those who had been salaried loggers, the hourly conversion of experience was also extremely problematic, as piecework salaried employees are paid by the job, with no reference to an hourly rate. [22] Committee members were therefore faced with the complicated task of remotely assessing experience-based skill in a manual profession with a low degree of formalization, a task made all the more difficult because applicants did not adequately meet the expected criteria.

Box 3. – Ability and professional experience criteria

In 1986, to set up as an ETF, applicants had to have been salaried forestry workers for three years, two years if they had completed a management course, or only one year if they had obtained a CAPA in forestry (college-level diploma in agriculture). Some qualifications allowed individuals to set up without prior experience (a “formal qualification” approved by the ministry combined with a course, a BEPA [vocational diploma in agriculture], or BPA [vocational degree in agriculture]).
Slowly, agricultural institutions began to provide educational training that prepared individuals for these professions. The development of these new courses and the general rise in the level of education in France enabled an update of the qualification criteria required by the committee. In the updated version of the decree issued in 2009, qualifications were therefore classified more unequivocally, no longer referring to specific titles but to their “level,” in reference to the official grades of qualification in the national nomenclature of training levels. The educational qualification requirements were also raised. In the criteria, level of education was then listed before experience, and baccalaureate level (level IV) was necessary (and sufficient) to set up without previous experience. Professional experience however remained a key aspect of competency assessment, since workers who had been employed for three years could in theory set up as ETF.

Applicants far removed from the official criteria

40Fewer than half of applicants (42 out of 101) had educational qualifications relating to the forestry sector, and fewer than a fifth (19) held the level IV qualification (baccalaureate) required to set up without experience (Table 1). This demonstrates the generally limited educational capital of applicants (Table 2): Twenty of them had no qualifications, fifty-five did not have a baccalaureate (or sixty-four if we assume, which is likely, that those with a baccalaureate would list their level of education, and could therefore be taken out of the “unknown qualifications” category). Furthermore, most applicants offered little to make up for this lack of qualifications, as they were rarely able to provide evidence of professional experience, even if they had more experience than education. Half of them (forty-nine) had never worked in forestry.

Table 1

Breakdown of candidates by their experience and level of forestry-related qualifications

No qualificationLevel V [23]Level IV [24] and aboveTotal
No experience2911949
One or two years36514
Three years or more276538

Breakdown of candidates by their experience and level of forestry-related qualifications

Table 2

Breakdown of candidates by their level of education (all specialisms combined)

Unknown qualification9
None or CEP20
BEP or CAP23
Vocational or technical baccalaureate35
General baccalaureate or diploma of higher education14

Breakdown of candidates by their level of education (all specialisms combined)

41The profession of ETF primarily attracts individuals from the working class. Not only did candidates have a low level of education, but they often applied in the second phase of their career (the median age of applicants was thirty-six), after having worked in subordinate roles (two-thirds had been factory or site laborers, or loggers: See Table A2 in the Appendix). This confirms that the majority of applicants were not only distanced from formal education, but also distanced socially from the committee members, who were higher educated and held higher positions in the labor market, far removed from subordinate roles and manual labor.

42Committee members therefore had to select candidates in situations they found difficult to understand and who, for the most part, were far removed from the desired candidate profile. This mismatch meant they had to show flexibility and might allow an applicant to set up as an ETF despite a lack of experience or education, as Michel Pierrot explained:


Today, we could stick to the official line and only consider salaried workers with a level of education equivalent to level IV [baccalaureate]. But the committee, in its wisdom, did not take this approach […]. If it had had to do so, we’d have had almost no salaried workers applying for a presumption of employee status waiver. We looked at the numbers and realized that, across all committees, at each committee [meeting] we only had around one person with a baccalaureate. So it wouldn’t work and we’d have almost no applicants. The committee always allows itself some leeway when assessing applications because if it took a black and white approach, it wouldn’t work.

44Thus, faced with situations that it judged to be too ambiguous or too difficult to understand, and often for applicants who had neither the required level of education nor experience, but whose profile suggested they could be viable ETFs, the committee began to issue conditional approvals. This allowed candidates without the required qualifications to set up as ETF as long as they completed a management course to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. This decision in turn made it possible to require the addition of an educational certificate (management) for an application with insufficient qualifications. The discrepancy between the expected and actual candidate profiles had become so great that the committee was forced to relax the official criteria. Thus, over the period studied, the committee issued a rejection for one in four applicants, much less than might be expected from simply combining the levels of education and experience presented by the applicants (Table 3). [25] The flexibility demonstrated by the committee in its selection indicates that its job was not to select the best of the applicants who met the criteria, nor to assess which applicants met the official criteria, but to identify those who were the least removed from them. This relative lenience in relation to the official conditions did not however prevent qualifications and professional experience from being discriminatory criteria among the applicants. Education was very clearly important: The higher the level of education, the higher the rate of approval (Table 3). Experience was less important: It was an asset but, even if extensive, could not lead to approval without a conditional requirement for an additional educational certificate, usually in management. The latitude exercised by the committee meant that to understand the mechanisms at work in this limitation, we must study the decisions made by its members on the applications.

Table 3

Number of decisions by applicants’ level of education and experience in the forestry sector

Forestry qualificationExperienceRejectionConditionalApproval
One or two years21
Three years or more4815
Level VNone236
One or two years24
Three years or more6
Level IVNone9
One or two years14
Three years or more14

Number of decisions by applicants’ level of education and experience in the forestry sector

Note: The lines in italics highlight situations not meeting the official set-up criteria.
Table 4

Decisions by applicants’ level of education and experience in the forestry sector

Level of forestry qualification
None5923 (39)12 (23)24 (41)
Level V232 (9) 5(22)16 (70)
Level IV and higher191 (5)1 (5)17 (90)
Forestry experience
None4921 (43)5 (10)23 (47)
One or two years141(7)4(29)9(64)
Three years or more384(10)9(24)25 (66)

Decisions by applicants’ level of education and experience in the forestry sector

Note: Percentages rounded up in parentheses.

The ultimate issue: Identifying good entrepreneurs

45These professional limitations were imposed from outside and from above, leading to the committee having to deal with applicants whose skills it found difficult to assess. We should also recall that while the criteria for setting up as an ETF focused on primarily technical certified professional skills (experience and professional training), these criteria were originally implemented as a solution to the problem of the viability of forestry companies. And, in fact, contrary to what might be expected from reviewing the legal texts, the committee’s role was not primarily to select the loggers most suited to carrying out high-quality work (those who would best fit the common definition of a “good professional” from a tradesman’s point of view), but to identify individuals who might survive self-employment and, in doing so, to produce a viable professional group of “entrepreneurs in their own career.” These professional limitations thus combined two appeals: An “appeal to professionalism” (Boussard et al 2010), and an appeal to “self-enterprise” (Abdelnour and Lambert 2014). This latter was being increasingly demanded from working-class workers, notably through measures incentivizing self-employment (Abdelnour 2013).

A good professional is a good entrepreneur

46The creation of these committees resulted from a diagnosis, and a solution: The belief that market instability was due to the presence of workers who were unable to act as entrepreneurs, and that ensuring entrepreneurial skill would therefore favor market stability. Conversely, across all the sources gathered for this study, technical skill was never mentioned as an issue, meaning either that all workers mastered these skills, or that this was not what was expected of them. Frédéric Murat shed light on this:


People who didn’t have the training or weren’t capable of becoming entrepreneurs, working for themselves, found they had been made entrepreneurs by their former boss. When it came to business management, or bookkeeping, they were completely at sea, they just couldn’t cope!

48The imposition of limitations was based on the idea that the market could be stabilized by cleaning it up, i.e. by allowing entry only by competent workers—with their competency related less to technical skill than to economic behaviors. A similar observation is found in a regional report:


No culture of entrepreneurship: A lack of accuracy estimating costs and cost prices when drawing up quotations results in profit loss […]. ETF often have trouble seeing themselves as business owners and sometimes have difficulty finding the time for business management. They sometimes lack the skills required, particularly in bookkeeping […]. The technical aspects are often well mastered; it is the complementary knowledge (bookkeeping, law, administration, etc.) that they lack.
(FIBRA 2010)

50This definition of the problem highlights “knowledge” expressed in terms that closely resemble educational options and disciplines, and require familiarity with the work of signs rather than the work of things. [26] Taking loggers out of employee status thus required them to adopt the economic behaviors without which they would not only quickly go bankrupt and endanger the viability of the social security system, but also put other companies at risk by increasing competition through incorrect practices:


There are some companies who keep their head above water, but the problem then is that it [the others] create competition. When you have some guy who can’t add up, who works at a loss everyday—when I say works at a loss, he works cheaply…well, if you’re cheap you find work!.
(Frédéric Murat, 2009)

52Closing the market to those who “can’t add up” is a way of relieving competition by standardizing behaviors around respecting relatively shared rules. Yet economic behaviors (ways of working, bookkeeping, taking risks) are socially situated: They depend on socialization, past experience, and the circumstances in which they are implemented. As such, the changing economic reasoning of the working class and of workers in a highly competitive market, in which cost pressures are high, may diverge significantly from legitimate accounting standards (Bourdieu 2000; Weber 2009; Perrin-Heredia 2011). The “culture of entrepreneurship” seen to be lacking among the ETFs in the report above seems likely to refer to a set of dispositions from which the majority of applicants were distanced. The tendency of individuals able to regulate the market or diagnose its faults, to condemn inappropriate economic behaviors, tallies with the opposition demonstrated by Florent Schepens (2008) between the “modern” ETFs—who have educational training—and the “traditional” ETFs—who tend to respond to a trade-based logic. Ultimately, it was indeed this “enterprising spirit” that the committee sought to identify, as Frédéric Murat explained:


They look at experience, qualifications, a whole load of criteria, whether the [applicant] has several clients, their own equipment, to decide if they are really suitable to work as a self-employed service provider. And that is much harder!

54The most important and most difficult aspect of the committee’s work was not identifying professionals with technical skills, but those who were viable entrepreneurs. If these limitations imposed on the ETF group from above resembled an appeal to professionalism, this was presented in one form: an appeal to entrepreneurship.

Identifying entrepreneurs based on education

55How did committee members go about identifying these potential entrepreneurs? In the absence of clear signals, they had to rely on indications that might suggest the capacity of individuals to survive on the market. And yet, as we have seen, two aspects of the way in which this selection process was organized contributed to emphasizing the role of qualifications in identification: The need for administrative clarity in the applications, which meant basing them on certified documents; and the characteristics of the majority of committee members, who were relatively well-educated, had limited empirical knowledge of forestry sites, and owed this experience to their professional position. Committee chair Michel Pierrot drew a direct link between applicants’ level of education and their ability to survive on the market:


Why did they raise the level [in the official criteria]? Because they realized, nationally, that salaried workers who wanted to set up as ETF did not always have enough knowledge of business management. And very often, once they had obtained the presumption of employee status waiver, it was often these companies that failed, because they couldn’t manage their affairs. So they raised the level of education, by putting in place suitable training, which was perfectly matched to the forestry environment.

57It should be noted that current understanding of the forestry service provider market does not make it possible to establish a correlation between these bankruptcies and the level of education among the ETF. Raising the level of education as a way of preventing bankruptcies therefore corresponded to a wager on altering the level of education and “entrepreneurial” competency. Whether or not this alteration is effective, it remains that, in the committee’s eyes, qualifications indicated that an applicant had acquired the necessary skills for surviving as an ETF. This example of self-employment involving specific training and knowledge is not unique. For example, although they are not subject to any qualification criteria, self-employed vehicle for hire drivers must complete several hours of minimum training before they can begin work. The skills required by the self-employed generally appear to relate to formal education—in the case of the ETF, a minimum level of qualification or, failing that, a theoretically complementary management course. This was thought to provide familiarity with a set of practices and market ideas considered to be assets for self-employment.

58And indeed, the delight taken by committee chair Michel Pierrot in reading out to me applications from highly qualified candidates whom he saw as “highly qualified and high-performing,” indicates that education played a decisive role in his assessment. Rolling off the title of the qualification with a precision that revealed his knowledge of the education system, he noted “an applicant who had extensive training: An engineering diploma and agricultural BTS specializing in forestry management.” This short higher educational course does not provide training in technical forestry skills—i.e. how to be a logger—but in their co-ordination or supervision. He continued, in relation to this application:


So that application went straight through. No need for discussion. […]. We simply said that if we only had applications like that, there would be no further need for the committee. An applicant submitting an excellent presentation of his plans with great skill. It suggests someone with get-up-and-go, someone who wants to run their own business.

60According to Michel Pierrot, rather than skilled workers, the committee was looking for entrepreneurs who were clearly motivated: Applicants who presented their plans skillfully, with energy, and appeared to show a desire to run their own business. The equivalence between the level of education and “entrepreneurial” skill was particularly remarkable as it was applied to applicants far removed from formal education, with only 14 of the 101 applicants having a general baccalaureate or higher education diploma. These rare examples stood out, however, since the majority of these qualified individuals received unconditional approval from the committee (Table 5).

Table 5

Decisions issued by level of education (all specialisms combined)

DecisionTotalProportion of approvals
General baccalaureate or higher diploma2111140.79

Decisions issued by level of education (all specialisms combined)

Box 4. – Mr. Bernard: A qualified outsider with great “professional potential”

Mr. Bernard was twenty-five years old. Despite having no qualifications in the sector, experience in forestry work, or training in forestry management, he stood out from the other applicants due to his level of education and a particularly well-presented application, which clearly caught the attention of the staff member responsible for its initial assessment, as (s)he felt it was necessary to intervene in order to guide the committee’s decision.
Mr. Bernard had obtained a general baccalaureate followed by an agricultural BTS in landscaping—not a recognized forestry qualification, but one that put him in the small group of applicants with a diploma in higher education. Like the majority of applicants, he carefully presented all the required characteristics of self-employment (company registration with the local business registry and a bookkeeping firm, potential clients, and suitable equipment).
This application overflowed with additional information provided by the MSA staff member who had put it together, to support the quality of the applicant. It stressed characteristics seen as assets: Mr. Bernard’s sensible approach, the support of his partner, and the fact that he had a baccalaureate.
Mr. Bernard, a sensible man, plans to keep his job initially. I note that his wife is still studying, and this year obtained a scientific baccalaureate. They appear to share a desire to create a company that, in the medium term, could create jobs.
As a precaution, no doubt aware of the disadvantages for the applicant of being too far removed from forestry work, the MSA agent had also added a letter of recommendation (the only one seen in the period of study):
Dear Sirs,
I do not usually intervene in the forestry committee in relation to any application. However, in view of his maturity, will, determination, and perfectionism, I must express how much I have appreciated the professionalism of Mr. Bernard, who, at only twenty-five years old, is still looking to better himself, and is very security-conscious. I see great professional and intellectual potential in this applicant, and he is highly capable of putting this potential to good use. I have great confidence in his plans for the future.
“Security-conscious” and with great “intellectual potential,” in the eyes of the committee Mr. Bernard seemed to represent that rare find: The ideal entrepreneur. The committee approved his application, but on the condition that he completed a technical training course in the areas in which he lacked skill. Notably, he was the only applicant in relation to whom reservations were expressed concerning technical skill rather than a lack of management skill. Professional training was thus seen as a formality, revealing both the power of educational capital in the committee’s decision-making, and its central role in assessing competencies.

61Furthermore, half of these advanced qualifications had no connections to the forestry sector. Here again, from the committee’s point of view, the role of qualifications was to provide a general sign of competency, not providing any information on the technical skill of workers nor on the theoretical knowledge of a forestry site manager. Having obtained qualifications that required a relatively long period of education was in itself seen as a notable asset. [27] For committee members, due to the dispositions it revealed, level of education was therefore an indicator of applicants’ capacity to be good entrepreneurs, and not simply an indicator of their technical skill and knowledge of the forestry sector (Box 3).

62Here I would suggest two interpretations that are not irreconcilable but difficult to untangle. First, the revealing role of qualifications—in themselves and not solely for what they formally certify—is similar to forms of “cultural matching,” where individuals have greater confidence in those who are socially similar to them (Rivera 2012). Second, qualifications were used as an indication due to a lack of better alternatives in an assessment process that was difficult because it involved so many contradictions: Identifying, in a low-skilled population, individuals who were capable of surviving on the market with a status involving limited protection and high risk; assessing certified educational skills in a population with experiences far removed from formal education, and evaluating professional competency via experience that remained extremely difficult to interpret without an understanding of forestry sites. Finally, the role of qualifications also confirms an implicit objective of the committee that was not set out in the legal texts: To identify possible company directors and business managers, and not necessarily manual laborers suited to self-employment.

Joint applications: A way to present the ideal entrepreneur?

63Clearly, in some cases, knowing how to manage a logging site was less important than knowing how to run a business—as shown by the case of Mr. Bernard above (Box 4). Such potential was demonstrated by a high level of education, or at least a diploma certifying training in management or bookkeeping, but the working-class associations of ETF status primarily attracted working-class applicants with few qualifications. From these backgrounds more so than others, it was difficult to find people with certified technical and management skills, due to their distance from formal education and the gendered division of secondary education options, as working-class boys rarely choose options leading to management or bookkeeping qualifications (Pfefferkorn 2004).

64It is known that, in practice, self-employed tradesmen are often supported by their partners, and that this is a condition for the survival of the business (Bertaux-Wiame 1982). The gendered division of work results in a division of labor between the man and the woman: The woman takes on the administrative and management work, while the man does the manual labor, despite often being the legal business owner. This arrangement is sometimes seen in the context of logging (Schepens 2004). However, legally, the presumption of employee status waiver applied only to one individual, not two. Consequently, a single individual had to meet all the criteria. In theory, this reduction of collective work to an individual prevented them from pooling the resources of a team. One DRAAF employee, who chaired another regional committee, observed that “[the law] does not yet fit the facts as, in many cases, the man works in the forest and the woman does the books.”

65The applications submitted by women reveal the contradictions faced by the committee in a different way. Although almost all the individuals requesting presumption of employee status waiver were men, during the period of study two women were approved by the committee. However, neither of them planned to work on site, and neither had previously done so. These decisions demonstrate strategies on the part of applicants (two-party applications combining technical and management skills) and the methods used by the committee members to resolve an unresolvable contradiction: The characteristics of a good ETF are not those of a laborer, but it is primarily laborers who want to become ETFs. Let us briefly consider these two examples.

66Laurence Vrille (“Miss”), born in 1984, and her father Marcel Vrille, submitted an application in 2009 for the Vrille LLC “to extend its activity to service provision.” The committee informed the Vrilles that they had to decide which one of the two would apply for the presumption of employee status waiver, and would therefore need to meet all the criteria. After consultation—likely informed by advice from the committee, in order to put forward the safest application—at the committee meeting, they decided to request the waiver for Laurence Vrille. The application indicates that neither of the two applicants had “the qualifications required in the legal texts,” but that “Miss Vrille ha[d] completed a course prior to setting up […] for the management aspect” and that, in addition, she “ha[d] a baccalaureate specializing in bookkeeping.” She had also been the co-director of the family business since its creation. Despite the fact that they had no connection to the forestry sector, and she was not planning to work on-site, her qualifications allowed her to secure approval.

67The second example involves Céline Durand, who was aged twenty-five and planned to take over her father’s business—the Durand Forestry Work LLC, with fifteen employees—upon her father’s retirement in a few years’ time. Employed as the company’s “sales manager” since obtaining her scientific baccalaureate, she had also completed a course in “bookkeeping for forestry work contractors.” Her career seemed to be on course to take over the family business. Céline Durand did not employ workers herself, as she was employed by her father’s company. However, the family connection appeared to allow the committee to consider her as an employer—and thus, in accordance with the legal texts, to meet the criteria for operational autonomy accorded to anyone who already had their own employees. Submitted by a young, well-educated woman who was planning to take over the family business, the application seemed to offer the guarantees of ability and professional experience, even if the applicant did not present these qualities herself. In its decision, the committee explicitly stated it had taken into consideration the presence of salaried workers with technical skills in her father’s business: “Although she does not have technical skills in forestry work and in the forestry sector more generally, the committee is however issuing an approval. C. Durand, who has also completed a course in b’ookkeeping for forestry work contractors’ […] has a solid team with extensive experience of work in this sector.”

68These two women provided the committee with the educational guarantee by which they ensured the company’s potential. But, exceptionally, they also formalized something that usually remains invisible in non-salaried work: The importance of unpaid work by women carrying out a set of tasks directly associated with self-employment. Paradoxically, here they embodied the ideal entrepreneur: A good manager without the technical skills who would instead employ laborers (in this case, men) to carry out on-site work. These applications from women reveal that taking a working-class profession out of employee status involve workers—generally for free, but in some exceptional cases officially—relying on the work of someone at home to carry out tasks that were previously done by employers.

69* * *

70The limitations analyzed in this article took the form of limitations imposed from above, or in other words, a way for individuals occupying superior positions in the labor market and/or social sphere to control workers’ access to professional status. These limitations reflect recent transformations in professional groups, but they also took unique forms. First, they applied to groups situated at the bottom of the labor market, characterized by their limited resources and structure, and their subordinate position. Second, they made it possible to manage at least their removal from employee status and the difficulties posed by their existence outside the associated social security scheme. Such limitations came up against two difficulties: They required the remote establishment of selection criteria for a group of workers with few qualifications, and they also required the committee to predict whether applicants would be able to survive on the market as self-employed individuals. As such, these limitations imposed from above combined an appeal to professionalism—verification of skills from outside the group—with an appeal to entrepreneurship.

71This demonstrates a displacement of professionalism from what study subjects call “good work,” toward what they mean by “good bookkeeping.” In effect, the committees tasked with controlling entry did little to confirm job-related competencies (i.e. manual skills, logging) but rather focused on management, bookkeeping, and sales skills, which can be described, in the term used by those studied, as “entrepreneurial.” Yet it was precisely these skills that applicants struggled to demonstrate. While some candidates with entrepreneurial profiles (able to demonstrate management training or a high level of education) were able to obtain approval to set up as an ETF without difficulty, for the majority of applicants, who tended to come from working-class backgrounds, this was clearly less straightforward. The desired entrepreneurial skills, poorly defined by the state in either the legal texts or educational qualifications, were difficult for committee members to identify. Identifying them therefore required committees to fall back on socially determined views as to economic behavior suited to the market, which can substantially vary depending on background. There was little overlap between what the committee members were looking for, from their higher position in the social hierarchy (skills revealed by educational and theoretical knowledge), and the reality of applications. As a result, these limitations also took the form of a type of social selection, a barrier to working-class men accessing self-employment, based on criteria linked to social inequality. And, while data on a larger scale might be lacking, the local data show that the population of approved applicants was, in fact, higher-qualified and less likely to come from subordinate jobs than the applicant pool as a whole. More generally, this form of professional regulation corresponded to a way of governing the existence of workers who, while being socially dominated, shared a subordinate position in the labor market, relative isolation in carrying out their work, a lack of integration in the company organizing such work and, as in this case, the legal and financial responsibility for the risks represented by their activity. By standardizing economic behaviors and reducing the level of competition through limitations, this regulation prolonged the survival of subordinate workers who were required to bear the risks themselves, in a market with high cost pressure, while limiting social security costs. In a way, by selecting its behaviors, these limitations might be seen as contributing to shaping a group that is, subsequently, regulated only by competition—and thus to resemble a mechanism that contributes to a more general trend of governance by the market (Evetts 2003). In parallel, these limitations introduced into the forestry sector a form of professional hierarchization in which self-employment was distinguished from the status of employees, who remained laborers symbolically and in status even if they carried out the same subordinate activity. As such, this mode of professional regulation combined elements of both the erosion of salary guarantees and the appeal to “self-enterprise” (Abdelnour and Lambert 2014) among the working classes. By simultaneously defining good professionals and good entrepreneurs on the basis of resources that are distributed extremely unequally, it contributed to controlling the removal of some working-class groups from employee status; a process that involves reshaping employment status at the bottom of the labor market.

I would like to thank Jérôme Greffion, the doctoral students in the Quantitative Sociology Research Group, and the peer reviewers of the Revue française de sociologie for their thorough review of this article.
Table A1

Set-up criteria listed in the two decrees

1986 decree2009 decree
Operational autonomyEmploying workforceIdem
Or one of the two following conditions:
– Owning equipment
– Company registration
– Registration with a management center
Experience and ability– Three years of professional experience with a company in the forestry sector (two years if followed by a business management course), one year with a CAP in forestry work– A level IV qualification in forestry work
– Qualification in forestry and business management course– One year (800 hours) of professional experience in a company in the forestry sector and a level V qualification combined with a business management course
– Agricultural BEP in the forestry sector
– BP in forestry production with management course
– Three years of professional experience with a company in the forestry sector
Ability or professional experience recognized by the committee

Set-up criteria listed in the two decrees

Table A2

Previous profession of applicants

Manual laborer (factory or site)32
Intermediate profession8

Previous profession of applicants


  • [1]
    For research in France, see in particular the work carried out by the ZOGRIS and CAPLA programs funded by the Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR, the French National Research Agency), the study day held at the University of Paris Nanterre in 2016 entitled “Le travail à l’épreuve des plateformes numériques” (Employment in an age of digital platforms), and the upcoming special issue (2018, no. 13) of La nouvelle revue du travail entitled “Travail et emploi sur les plateformes numériques” (Work and employment on digital platforms). For a review of the literature from the United States, see Juliet B. Schor and William Attwood-Charles (2017).
  • [2]
    Salaried loggers (called pieceworkers) have special status: they are paid a per-piece rate through site contracts and are covered by unemployment provision, alongside sales representatives, journalists, and kindergarten assistants, under Appendix 1 of the UNEDIC (Union nationale interprofessionnelle pour l’emploi dans l’industrie et le commerce, the French unemployment benefit provider) regulation. Today, more than half of registered foresters in France are self-employed.
  • [3]
    Even though such vocabulary is unable to encompass the multidimensional nature of social inequalities. The terms “bottom” and “top,” frequently used, without inverted commas, in analyses of the social hierarchy in France and abroad to position individuals or groups based on their resources, and in the sociology of work to position them in organizational charts, are also accepted in sociology studies of the working class (Collovald and Schwartz 2006).
  • [4]
    This is because, like other self-employed social security schemes, non-salaried agricultural social security is based on levying contributions based on company revenue. However, companies declaring bankruptcy were no longer solvent and the contribution pool was further reduced as more and more companies went bankrupt. Furthermore, these bankruptcies sometimes constituted strategies for avoiding paying contributions when cost pressures were very high: small business entrepreneurs sacrificed their social security for a higher income and, to avoid paying contributions, filed for bankruptcy (Pupier 1992).
  • [5]
    Source: MSA data, my own calculations. See also Jean-Pierre Laurier (2006).
  • [6]
    Florent Schepens reports that the average rate of occupational accidents for salaried workers belonging to the general social security scheme was around 48 per thousand in 2000. For jobs in the construction and public works sectors it was 99 per thousand in 2002, and for non-salaried loggers affiliated to MSA it was 166 per thousand in 2003 (Schepens 2007, 76).
  • [7]
    The income of an ETF is impossible to quantify due to a lack of sources. The field research indicated that they often receive a monthly income of around 1,500 euros (annual income divided by month). None of the ETFs I met earned more than 2,000 euros.
  • [8]
    According to MSA data for 2011, 71% of forestry work companies declared having paid no salaries and 18% declared having paid over 10,000 euros (less than a full-time equivalent). Source: MSA COTNS database. My own calculations.
  • [9]
    Here, the presumption of employee status waiver committee can be seen as a method of external limitation of the forestry service provision market. External limitation describes the situation in which it is entry to the market that is regulated. Internal limitation aims to reduce competition between individuals who are already present on the market. The concept is taken from the work of Max Weber (1978) and is explained in the article by Carine Ollivier (2012).
  • [10]
    Due to being spread out over a large area, the difficulties of site access, and a lack of means for inspecting work. When they are inspected, this is primarily for the purposes of combating undeclared work. This explains how a significant proportion of forestry work is able to evade the legal economy.
  • [11]
    The idea that professions can be analyzed using the same conceptual toolkit, regardless of their level of prestige, has been a considerable advance in the sociology of professional groups. But these “irreverent comparisons” (Hughes 1984) benefit from keeping an eye on the highly unequal aspect of the groups compared: the different forms of professionalization for lawyers (Karpik 1995) or prostitutes (Pryen 2009) are not due to the nature of their profession, but the fact that their members have and control extremely unequal resources certainly plays a role in how they are defined.
  • [12]
    This study is itself part of a collective ethnography on the reshaping of contemporary rural worlds (the ESMR [CESAER/INRA] study).
  • [13]
    Decree updated in 2009 following the removal of agricultural labor inspection services.
  • [14]
    All names of places and people have been changed.
  • [15]
    If the Office national des forêts is excluded. On the subject of business organizations in a small rural area, see Baptiste Giraud (2012).
  • [16]
    As the owners of SME, the two others were potential clients: a representative from the Departmental Directorate of Territories and one from the Centre régional de la propriété forestière (Regional Forestry Property Center), a forestry owner union.
  • [17]
    Salaried forestry workers were also represented from a distance: the lack of salaried forestry worker unions meant that the DRAAF had to call on non-specialist unions, in this case two general union representatives from the CGT (general workers’ confederation). Here again, the only organized group of salaried workers consisted of workers from the Office national des forêts (ONF) - workers responsible for forest maintenance (not loggers) and employed on permanent, private-law contracts by the state-owned organization.
  • [18]
    “The ‘modern’ ETFs have instigated the structuring of the profession by creating and strongly committing to a professional association and a union. These two bodies aim to give some of the forestry workers representation and protect their interests. This process has been accompanied by a rhetoric of separation that aims to set the ‘modern’ ETFs apart from the ‘traditional’ ETFs, who are accused of all ills (undercutting on price, not respecting the environment, etc.). In this redefinition, the union and association are supported by training institutions, which are a powerful vector for professional socialization. Part-time instructors and examiners, for example, are ‘modern’ ETFs. They see training institutions as the preferred organizations for professional retraining” (Schepens 2008, 357).
  • [19]
    The example of the ETF is also very different from the merchant navy model (Paradeise 1984), where the closure of the market was based on a highly integrated and sustainable group of salaried workers playing an important role via unions.
  • [20]
    Directive 2006/123/EC of December 12, 2006.
  • [21]
    The heterogeneity of committee members, particularly in relation to their familiarity with formal education, is certainly a source of disagreement. Nevertheless, the overwhelming, if not unanimous, role of qualifications is indicated in two ways. First, relatively well-qualified public sector and association employees were in the majority and were the only ones whose interventions were recorded in the meeting minutes. Second, in my interview with one of the committee members, who owned an SME, he criticized this assessment of professional skill by qualification, demonstrating a lack of consensus on what made a “good professional” but showing that there was a dominant trend, even if he opposed it: “When someone is qualified but not working in the sector, they say that’s good because they’re qualified.”
  • [22]
    It is therefore likely that the majority of candidates resorted to creative means to convert their experience into units relevant to the committee. I note in passing that the official formulation of the selection criteria by number of hours worked is surprisingly inconsistent with the reality of the working conditions of salaried employees on forestry sites, again demonstrating the limited representation of the professional group.
  • [23]
    Equivalent to a vocational certificate or diploma.
  • [24]
    Equivalent to a degree-level qualification.
  • [25]
    The simple count in Table 3 shows that forty-three applicants did not meet the official conditions for setting up as an ETF, suggesting that between fifteen and twenty applications were recalled and assessed more flexibly.
  • [26]
    A distinction suggested by Michel Verret, for whom the work of signs denotes administrative work: “This ‘administrative’ culture, for example, which we might also call an office culture, due to the work of signs carried out there, which is so different from the work of things, even if it is still not brain work” (Verret 1991, 55).
  • [27]
    A logistic regression analysis reveals the effect of qualifications in themselves, i.e. independently of the knowledge they indicate. Having a general baccalaureate or higher qualification of any specialism appeared to have a positive impact on receiving unconditional approval from the committee, for applications equal in all other aspects (Gros 2015).

This article contributes to the body of research relating to the structure of professional groups in the lowest-skilled sectors of employment. The professional status of “entrepreneur de travaux forestiers” [forestry work contractor] or ETF was created to regulate an unstable labor market consisting of a large number of self-employed loggers. In order to achieve this, limitations were imposed on them via regional committees responsible for assessing the aptitude of applicants to set up as self-employed ETFs. There were two consequences of the implementation of these limitations on this subordinate, self-employed group. Firstly, the limitations were not within the control of the professional group itself but are imposed “from above”; and secondly, they presented entrepreneurship as an occupational skill to be demonstrated via educational qualifications. This led committees to view technical skills as secondary to educational qualifications certifying an individual’s ability to run a business. The limitations thus took the form of an appeal to entrepreneurship, which based the definition of these self-employed workers’ professional competency on the idea of an entrepreneur rather than on that of the skilled worker or “tradesman.” The article is based on qualitative analysis and quantitative handling of data (interviews and job applications) amassed from an investigation into these regional committees.

  • professional groups
  • subordinate occupations
  • appeal to professionalism
  • self-employment
  • self-management
  • occupational limitations

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Julien Gros
Institut de recherche interdisciplinaire en sciences sociales (IRISSO) (Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in the Social Sciences), Paris-Dauphine University—PSL Research University— CNRS Place du Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny
75775 Paris cedex 16
Quantitative Sociology Research Group (CREST-GENES)
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