France is reborn as the European 'baby champion'

In Foreign Parts: Paris
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As the father of three children, I travel half price on the Paris Metro. I have a 30 per cent discount on the French railways and (if the children are with me) on internal air travel. I pay substantially less tax and qualify for generous family allowances, whatever my income.

To be the father or mother of three children or more in France is to be a privileged person: an official hero of the state; the parent of a famille nombreuse (numerous family). For 150 years, France has been troubled by its shortage of children, in comparison with its faster-breeding neighbours (especially, in the 19th century, the Germans and the British). There has been, in the words of one one demographic expert, " une préoccupation du désert" – an obsession with emptiness.

Now, abruptly, for the first time in two centuries, France finds to its surprise and joy that it leads Western Europe in the production of babies.

It may be just a statistical blip. The lead is small: 1.89 babies for every woman in France, compared with 1.88 in Ireland and only 1.68 in Britain.

But the incentives for procreation given by the French state seem finally to be paying off. Although French women are having their first babies later and later, they are increasingly likely to go on and have a second. According to a report published this week by the French demographic institute, 779,000 babies were born in France last year, a 5 per cent increase on 1999. They have been pouring out at the same rate during 2001, producing France's biggest baby boom for 20 years. The relative collapse of birth rates elsewhere – especially in southern Europe and Ireland – has left France as "championne d'Europe des bébés", in the triumphant words of one newspaper.

To grasp the psychological importance of this, you have to go back two centuries.

Every other European country had a population explosion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Advances in medicine and diet meant fewer people died young but, for several decades, the birth rate remained as high as ever. As a consequence, the European population soared.

Not in France. French people also stopped dying young but they also stopped having so many children. Long before family planning happened in other countries, the French began to practise birth control, mostly though coitus interruptus, since condoms were not yet widely available.

Why they did this remains a mystery: some historians put forward economic or legal explanations, to do with French inheritance laws. Others suggest that it was something to do with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the cult of the child. Families, even poor families, wanted to cherish a small number of children rather than neglect them in large numbers.

For whatever reason, the French birth-rate collapsed long before it did elsewhere. France, which for centuries had been the most populous country in Europe – and one of the most thickly populated – saw other nations catch up and even go ahead. At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, there were 27.6 million people in France and about 10.5 million in Britain. Both countries now have about 60 million.

In other words if France, which is geographically twice the size of Britain, had grown as rapidly as we did in the first half of the 19th century, there would be 150 million French citizens today. France would be the overwhelmingly dominant country in Western Europe; it would rival the United States as a power on the planet.

The French authorities grasped the significance of the baby shortage in the mid-19th century. Subsidies to families have existed since the early 20th century. The Vichy government from 1940 to 1944 enormously increased them, partly for Catholic fundamentalist reasons. The policy is still pursued vigorously.

Until recently, there were doubts whether this huge investment in procreation had any effect. Some experts continue to have their doubts.

None the less, the subsidies – especially the tax breaks – are offered by some demographers as one reason young French people are having more babies. (There has also been a boomlet in teenage pregnancies, which had not previously been much of a problem in France).

Other stubborn demographers point out that – European baby champion or not – the birth rate in France remains below the score needed to maintain the population at its present level. They forecast that the French population will peak at about 64.5 million in 40 years' time and then begin to decline.

The same fate, or worse, awaits other European Union countries (Italy 1.19 babies per woman; Spain 1.20; Austria 1.32). Here is the demographic lesson. Babies are strategically important. France, the dominant power in the 18th century, lost its place in the 19th and 20th – not because of the Revolution or the Napoleonic wars or through the loss of Quebec – but because it stopped having babies 30 or 40 years before other countries. It is time for a Common European baby policy.