You have heard about the “seismic”, “shocking” and “bombshell” results from last month’s vote in Europe for the EU parliament. Many traditional, centrist parties lost ground and in France and in the UK, anti-EU parties (the Front National and UKIP respectively) received the most votes (around 25% in each case).

There have been different analyses of these election results, and it should be noted that the voter turnout was fairly low: 42% across Europe as a whole and less than 35% in the UK. However, one analysis caught my eye the other day, that of Reuven Brenner in the Asia Times Online. Mr Brenner draws in the demographic outlook of Europe to help explain what the election results mean. So, not surprisingly, I thought that it would be perfect to discuss here at Demography is Destiny!

Brenner begins by discussing the history of France’s obsession with its population and its fertility rate:

“Ever since France’s defeat in 1870-1 in the Franco-Prussian war, when military strength was identified with numerical superiority, demography, language and culture have become permanent parts of, and, at times, the focus of French politics…

George Clemenceau, France’s prime minister in 1919, when ratifying the Treaty of Versailles, announced that: ‘The treaty does not say that France must undertake to have children, but it is the first thing which ought to have been put in it. For if France turns her back on large families, one can put all the clauses one wants in a treaty, one can take all the guns of Germany, one can do whatever one likes, France will be lost because there will be no more Frenchmen.’ 

The Vichy politicians embraced ‘pronatalism of the French population’, and gave gold medals for women having more than 10 children, silver to those with seven, and bronze to those with five. It did not bring about the desired effects – absurd policies rarely do. 

More recently, Michel Debre, prime minister under de Gaulle, frequently spoke in the National Assembly about ‘the demographic struggle’, and in 1979, Michel Jobert, de Gaulle’s foreign minister, wrote the article titled ‘Comment un pays meurt,’ (‘How a country dies’) in a collection entitled La France ridee. Jacques Chirac described the demographic situation in France as ‘terrifying’ and Europe as ‘vanishing’.”

After being invaded three times by their larger, stronger and more populous neighbour in seventy years starting in 1870, you can understand why French policy makers have been preoccupied with their nation’s population. In the age of mass armies and total war, the greater the population means the greater the army and all things being equal, the greater the ability to defend oneself. (Of course a larger army isn’t a total guarantee of success, but a significantly smaller army is probably a guarantee of failure). However, since the end of the Second World War, fears of another German invasion have eased in France and now the demographic fears have shifted elsewhere, fears which Marine Le Pen’s Front National used in its election success last month:

“The Marine Le Pen fear of decline no longer refers to German birth rates or population growth but the smaller fertility within France among the ‘pure French’ relative to the higher ones among the various immigrant groups, Muslims in particular. 

In fact, French fertility for the country as a whole stands roughly at the replacement number of two (while in Spain, for example it is a mere 1.4). However, 27.3% of newborn in metropolitan France had at least one foreign-born parent and 23.9% had at least one parent born outside of Europe (and parents born in what remains from France’s overseas territories are considered as born in France). Between 2006 and 2008, about 40% of newborns in France had one foreign-born grandparent (11% from other European countries, 16% from Maghreb and 12% from other parts of the world).”

As well as this, Brenner points to the fact that at least 2 million “relatively young, skilled and entrepreneurial” French citizens over the past decade have left for London, the Silicon Valley etc for jobs. (I was unaware that the numbers were as high as that!) Thus, Brenner argues that it is becoming harder and harder to maintain a sense of corporate identity in France:

“French politicians have been searching for ways to sustain the population’s loyalty – and their traditional power base – but failed to notice that their atavistic vocabularies drawing on outdated “isms” and the redistributive policies pursued drawing on them no longer unify. 

The welfare policies that work in relatively small, relatively homogenous, high-taxed Scandinavian countries with skilled and disciplined populations, and which worked to some extent in France too for a while – are doomed once the country loses cohesion. People must be re-linked drawing on principles other than language, ethnicity or history. 

While people in France may still speak French, they are getting more diverse by ethnic origin, religion, customs and tradition. They certainly lack any common history – and the way history is now being taught in schools and universities, it has more chances to divide people further rather than unite them. The past alone does not keep people united. They need futures.”

With the number of native French citizens declining (relatively and soon absolutely) in France, is it such a surprise that many voters turned to Le Pen’s party and its promise of “a pure, national past”? Of course, to understand is not necessarily to condone, but I think that part of the frustration of many voters is that the major parties in Europe have refused to even debate immigration without using the terms “racist” and “bigot”. (Remember Gordon Brown’s horrendous lapel mic “slip” about a potential voter during the 2010 elections?)  Brenner sums up the reason for the European election results this way:

“Among the main problems European countries, France in particular, face is that their policies have not been adjusted either to the increased mobility of people; to their declining fertility; to their longer life expectancy; to the prospect of having their ethnic populations decline in absolute numbers within few years; to the fact that the present generous welfare system and Byzantine regulations (sustaining an ever expanding French and European bureaucracy) cannot be sustained under such demographic pressures, a pressure whose mitigation would require selection of immigrants, establishment of “foreign status workers” with a variety of rights and obligations. 

Since Europe’s established parties have displayed no willingness to deal with any of the above problems for decades by now, the protest vote this past week-end did not come as a surprise.”

So maybe it’s time to amend that well-worn political catch cry: “It’s the , stupid!” 

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...