France’s baby boom secret: get women into work and ditch rigid family norms


Anne Chemin in The Guardian (Photograph: Camille Tokerud/Getty):

Over the past 10 years the offices of France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies (Ined) have seen a steady stream of Korean policymakers and Japanese academics, determined to crack the mystery of French fertility. Scientists present their birthrate graphs and explain the broad lines of French public policy. “In the past four or five years we’ve had over 10 Korean delegations,” says demographer Olivier Thévenon with a smile. Haunted by the threat of population decline, these Asian experts are keen to understand the recipe that has given France the highest fertility rate in Europe, alongside Ireland.

Since the early 2000s France has consistently topped European rankings. After two decades of decline, in the 1970s-80s, the fertility rate started picking up again in the late 1990s. Since then the country has registered scores just short of the mythical threshold of 2.1 children per woman, which would secure a steady population. Its fertility rate in 2014 was 2.01. “For the economy Germany is the strong man of Europe, but when it comes to demography France is our fecund woman,” says demographer Ron Lesthaeghe, member of the Belgian Royal Academy of Sciences and emeritus professor of Brussels Free University.

Much of central and southern Europe has subsided into a strange demographic winter. Fifty years after the postwar baby boom, the fertility rate in the European Union has fallen in recent years to 1.58 live births per woman. Year in, year out the Mediterranean countries contradict the clichés about Roman Catholic culture. In recent years Spain, Portugal and Italy have witnessed a dramatic fall in the number of births (registering 1.4 or even 1.3 births per woman). German-speaking countries – Germany and Austria – have fared scarcely any better, much as most former eastern bloc countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Policymakers all over Europe are concerned about such decline.

Yet there is nothing mysterious about the approach that is working in both France and Scandinavia. It combines the idea of a modern family based on gender equality and powerful government policies. “Nowadays, both ingredients are needed to sustain the population,” Lesthaeghe asserts. “At first sight it seems a simple recipe, but it’s far from easy to put into practice: it takes a lot of time to design and establish a new family model.”

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