Deserted streets, curtains lowered and signs indicating in red letters “local to yield”. This nightmare has become reality for the majority of town centers in rural areas in France. This is confirmed by a note published Thursday, May 25 by the Economic Analysis Council (CAE), a think tank attached to Matignon.
Its two authors, Marie-Laure Allain and Anne Epaulard, provide an overview of small businesses in France. The observation is clear: between 2013 and 2019, the number of those located in rural areas decreased by 5%. The figure rises to 7% if bars and restaurants are excluded. A considerable acceleration compared to the period 2008 to 2013, when only 0.1% of these businesses in rural areas had disappeared.
The death of the village
Their decline jeopardizes the supply of essential goods and services. But the problem is broader. “Small businesses enliven cities, promote social mixing and contribute to the attractiveness of territories,” says Anne Epaulard. This is what is called in economics “positive externalities”.
Their disappearance threatens this attractiveness and leads to a decline in demography. “The risk is the death of the village”, worries the researcher. In 2022, more than two thirds of French municipalities had no shops according to INSEE. They were less than one in three in 1980.
Supermarkets are the primary cause of this disappearance. “The development of large food-oriented supermarkets has led to the disappearance of a large number of small general food stores,” the report explains. In the non-food sectors, the brand networks have also pushed many independents out. »
If e-commerce is often singled out, its role remains minimal for the authors of the report. “E-commerce is developing above all in urban and well-to-do areas”, explains Marie-Laure Allain.
Targeted public actions
Faced with a situation considered worrying, the CAE advocates the deployment of targeted public actions. “Any support policy must be done at local and not national level,” says Anne Epaulard. What is valid for one city is not necessarily valid for another. »
The idea is to decentralize decision-making, for finer steering. However, there is no question of subsidies directly allocated to businesses. “The best way to help businesses is to improve the organization of town centres. Facilitating their accessibility, with the development of public transport or soft mobility, or making them more pleasant to live in indirectly benefits businesses,” analyzes the researcher.
Several programs already encourage this dynamic. Launched in 2018 by the government, Action Coeur de Ville (ACV) supports local authorities wishing to reinvest in their city centres. The Small Towns of Tomorrow (PVD) program initiated two years later targets 1,646 municipalities with less than 20,000 inhabitants. Between them, these plans mobilize more than 13 billion euros over 9 years, “unprecedented sums” specifies Marie-Laure Allain.
In the Creuse, the PVD program has thus enabled the municipality of Chérénailles to enhance the attractiveness of its territory through programs for embellishment, security for pedestrians and after-school care for children.
Problem: the impact of these programs on businesses has never been evaluated. “We have no way of measuring the number of stores saved by these plans, laments Marie-Laure Allain. The approach is the right one: local, punctual, precise; but we do not know the results are there. »
In September 2022, a Senate report deplored the lack of analysis of the results and noted several problems of underfunding. “The expected objectives of revitalization are neither quantified nor easily assessable,” noted the report.
Not always profitable
In municipalities without trade, the method differs. It is no longer just a matter of revitalizing town centres, but of reviving economic activity. In February, the government announced a plan to help set up businesses in villages that lack them. With a budget of 12 million euros over 2023, it can support a project up to €80,000 for a physical store, and €20,000 for an itinerant trade. Last month, this program saved the grocery store in Bellevigne-les-Châteaux, in Maine-et-Loire.
“The problem is not to find premises, specifies Marie-Laure Allain. Above all, these activities are not always profitable. In question, the lack of customers due to a demographic deficit, but also the competition exerted by the commercial zones of the nearest medium-sized towns.
To overcome this, the researcher advises concentrating a wide range of activities in one place: sales (groceries, press, tobacco) but also services (post, parcels). This is the objective of the “1000 cafés” programme, financed by the SOS group, which encourages the development of multi-service cafés in rural areas.
Who to take care of such places? “In the absence of takeover by the inhabitants in the form of associations or cooperatives, the only means of direct action by local authorities is to take over the trade in the form of a municipal management”, indicates the report.
A solution rarely implemented and only possible to maintain the activity of the last business in the city. “The town hall cannot enter into direct competition with an existing company”, specifies the document.
Today there are about ten of these management companies in France, including that of Chapelle-Neuve in Morbihan since April 2023.
So no fatalism. “Small businesses are undergoing more change than decline,” concludes Anne Epaulard, for whom the challenge is now more a question of analytical tools than of financial or legislative means. We need data to understand the specific needs of small businesses and better protect the positive externalities they generate. »
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