French celebrate biggest baby boom since 1980s

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The Independent Online

It's almost a "bébé" boom: France had more babies in 2006 than in any year in the past quarter century, capping a decade of rising fertility that has bucked Europe's greying trend.

The government trumpeted the figures as a victory for family-friendly policies such as cheap day care and generous parental leave - many of which were launched under Socialists such as the presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, who was Families minister in the early Nineties, and have continued to grow under today's conservative government.

France had 830,000 new babies last year, the highest annual total since 1981, the Insee national statistics agency said yesterday. That brought France's population to 63.4 million people as of 1 January, up from 62.9 million a year earlier.

The fertility rate was two children per woman, up from 1.92 in 2005 - presumably making France the most fertile nation in the European Union, the Insee director, Jean-Michel Charpin, suggested. In 2005, only Ireland had a higher fertility rate than France - 1.99 to France's 1.94. Irish figures for 2006 are not yet available.

"The deciding factor comes from the fact that it is easier to reconcile professional activity and a family life here than in most other European countries," Mr Charpin said at a news conference. The Families minister, Philippe Bas, told parliament: "This should encourage us to go even further in our ambitious family policy."

The growing birth rate was a welcome boost for a government plagued by a stagnant economy, high unemployment and voter disillusionmentwith those in power. France is one of the few countries in Europe where most of the population growth comes from births instead of from immigration.

France's fertility rate has been climbing steadily since 1996, Insee said, but it still has not passed 2.1 - the figure most observers believe is the figure needed to replace a population in developed countries.

Mr Charpin noted that the fertility rate among France's immigrant population was slightly higher than among the population at large.

French life expectancy is also on the rise, at 77.1 years for men and 84 years for women, Insee said.

But the number of marriages is continuing to decline, as more couples are choosing to form civil unions instead, Insee said.