“Wanting to create a French-style Mittelstand for SMEs is a fiction”

Tribune. In a context of crisis and economic difficulties, there is a great temptation to want to imitate the models of the most competitive countries. Germany appears to be doing better than France in terms of gross domestic product, public deficit, unemployment rate and export performance. Indeed, the backbone of German industry is formed by large companies and a very extensive network of small and medium-sized enterprises, the Mittelstand, regularly presented as the strength and specificity of the German economy. Thus, according to the recurring recommendations of certain economic commentators, it would suffice to draw inspiration from the German model and the Mittelstand to create a fabric of companies comparable to that of German companies and to post the same economic performances as on the other side of the Rhine. If the proposed solution seems simple at first glance, its implementation seems much more complicated, even impractical.

A major player in the global market

Le middle class is mainly made up of companies with less than 500 employees. It is given an important role in the innovation process, in the creation and stability of employment, but it is also seen as a major player in the global market. By way of comparison, in 2019, there were 479,596 medium-sized companies (50 to 249 employees) and 19,360 “large” companies (more than 249 employees) in Germany, compared with 148,078 and 6,003 respectively in France. All in all, German companies have higher turnover, employ more people and have better export results than French companies.

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There is therefore a strong temptation to want to create a French Mittelstand, which would be made up of larger and more international SMEs. The trouble is that the Mittelstand is a specifically German entrepreneurial concept, inserted into the economic and societal model of German society, and not just a statistically identifiable category of companies. The management of the company, economic independence, ownership owned by the family, a strong attachment to the territory as well as an entrepreneurial culture forged historically by German society are its essential characteristics.

Support from the government and the Länder

These companies place the individual at the heart of their concerns. Decisions are always collective, with flat hierarchies giving a large place to the sharing of responsibilities. Corporate social responsibility is an applied reality, not a marketing product. They set up long-term strategies, since German laws facilitate transmission to subsequent generations; they have international and inter-company cooperation in their “blood”. This is why we find SMEs in the Mittelstand contingent, but also companies like Kärcher – well known to the French consumer – or Stihl.

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“Wanting to create a French-style Mittelstand for SMEs is a fiction”