I am currently reading a book by historian Norman Stone on the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century in Europe. The book is extremely interesting; it has changed my idea of Europe as an idyll in which economic and political liberalism was ever increasing but was cut short by the Great War. Instead, in many of the countries of Europe liberalism had already broken down and there were indeed many proto-fascist movements in Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany.
At this time in France the geostrategic situation was concerning – it was committed to reversing the result of the 1870 war with Prussia, was concerned about growing German dominance, but also had a population that was barely growing, while most other countries in Europe (including Germany) were rapidly increasing in population. In fact, the relatively low birthrate of French women seems to have been a part of the European landscape for a long time. While Napoleonic France had a population double that of the states that approximate modern Germany, by World War Two France had a population only two-thirds Germany’s size.
Nowadays, France’s population is still much smaller than Germany’s, but it is catching up. Although the number of children born in France is declining, it is predicted to catch up to Germany by the middle of the century. The current French birthrate is declining, but there are grounds to think that this decline will not be sustained.
In 2016, the number of children born in metropolitan France dropped to 747,000, down from 781,000 two years before. This lower number of children born and the higher number of French people dying means that France’s natural population increase continues to slow. Over the last ten years it has dropped by 40 percent to 173,000 in 2016. This drop in natural growth and birth is, at least in part, attributable to the economic crisis that gripped most of the world from late 2007. French women have decided to put off having children due to economic certainty and high unemployment.
France’s total fertility rate (the number of children the average woman will have over the course of her life) dropped by 3.5% between 2008 and 2015. However, this was quite a modest drop compared to the same period in the United Kingdom (7%) and the USA (13%). France’s drop also occurred later than in those countries, and despite the dip, France’s fertility rate of 1.92 in 2015 remains the highest in the EU.
If previous trends are anything to go by, it is expected that the French fertility rate will start to improve as economic conditions pick up. An economic crisis tends to delay the number of births overall, it does not reduce them absolutely. This can be clearly seen in the history of French fertility rates by cohort — that is, the actual number of children born to a cohort of women who have passed childbearing age (thus are 50 or older). The last cohort with a completed fertility rate is thus those women born in the mid-60s: they had 2.02 children on average. This is down from the completed fertility rate of those women born in the 1920s and 1930s who had about 2.6 children on average.
The projection is that the French fertility rate will remain just above or just below the 2 children per woman level for those women born up until the mid-1980s (and are in their early 30s now). This compares favourably with Germany’s fertility rate of around 1.5 children and is in part due to more favourable childcare facilities (see my last post on Germany’s attempt to improve its family policies) such as the special childcare allowance. If this continues, then the German demographic lead over France, the worry that France has had for 150 years, will be gone in a generation.