For the fourth consecutive year, in 2018 the number of births declined in France, although this country is still the most fertile in Europe. It is soon to know if the drop in the birth rate is temporary: a consequence of the economic crisis, job insecurity or the reduction of family assistance. Or if it is a lasting trend that will lead the French to be equated with the rest of Europe and end with a demographic exception whose roots can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century.
In 2018, 758,000 babies were born in France, 12,000 fewer than in 2017, according to the Demographic balance of the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee, in its French acronym). The decline, according to the Insee, is partly explained by the decrease in women at the most fertile age, between 20 and 40 years: today they are 8.4 million. In 1998 they were 9.1 million. At the same time, these women are having fewer children, or later, which makes it possible to understand the decline in the birth rate.
The demographers are not clear about the reasons for the decline. "You have to be prudent, there are probably economic reasons," replies Paul-André Rosental, a professor at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris. For more modest households, the rising cost of living, and especially housing, can lead to reduced fertility, according to demographer Rosental. For the most affluent households, the cause may be the reduction of family allowances and tax benefits above an income threshold, adopted during the presidency of the Socialist François Hollande between 2012 and 2017.
The drop in the number of births, however, has not ended with the French exception. The fertility rate remains high, 1.87 children per woman. In Germany it was 1.60 in 2016 and 1.34 in Spain.
Why is France still different? Rosental has just published a book, Population, the state, and national grandeur (Population, the State and the national 'grandeur'), where it studies the central place that demographics in French identity and in political debates. The demographic exception - relative exception, says Rosental, because the Nordic countries also have high fertility - is not only explained by the level of public aid, which exists in other countries with a low birth rate as Germany. It is crucial that mothers are provided with access to the labor market.
"In countries that have not developed policies that allow mothers to enter the labor market, women prefer to reduce their fertility than sacrifice their ability to enter the labor market," argues Rosental. Germany, Spain, Italy or Japan "are typically countries where it is not easy for a mother to have an activity rate as high as in France or the Scandinavian countries."
To understand why France has these policies - for example, in the form of childcare - you have to go back to before the French Revolution, when this was "the first country in the world to know a drop in fertility". The retreat of religious sentiment can explain this phenomenon, which was added, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Napoleonic Code that forced to divide the patrimony between children. "It is believed that the small farmers restricted their fertility to avoid splitting the farm," he says.
During the nineteenth century, economic progress and improvements in health sparked the population in the rest of Europe. In France the alarm was beginning to spread. The military and economic power was then associated with the population and the fear was that Germany, the great rival, crushed it by having more children. Thus was born the natalist ideology, which, Rosental recalls, even gave rise to a novel of Émile Zola, Fertility. The First World War aggravated the demographic catastrophism. If the French stopped making children, the country would succumb. It was then, in the period between the wars, when many of the current family policies were born, that they had the consensus of left and right, and that included the facilities for mothers to work, such as public or business day care centers.
"Culturally and politically, the idea was extended that it was legitimate for a mother to work," says Rosental. The family policies of the Vichy regime, collaborator with the Nazis, did not end the French attachment to natalism, which continued in the postwar period.
Does all this end with the four years of continuous birth decline? Another demographer, Hervé Le Bras, suspects that the current trend is not conjunctural and may reveal a deep movement, but it is cautious.
"The figures are unclear, because when the birth rate changes, there are two components: that couples have fewer children or that they have them later," she says. It is possible that economic insecurity is now delaying births, he says. Le Bras recalls that, between 1975 and 2000, the French fertility index has already fallen and then recovered. The explanation was that, in this period, the average age at which French women had their first child went from 23.5 to 28 years. The final average of children per woman did not change in this period: they had approximately two children, but they had them later.