Their economy is hardly a model for Europe but one French policy, at least, appears to be paying big dividends. After encouraging its citizens to multiply, France is on course to become the most populous country in Europe by 2050, overtaking Britain and even Germany.
The French birth rate is outmatched in Europe only by Ireland and is expected to boost the population from today’s 60m—about the same as Britain—to 75m by 2050. This could turn France, which complains of losing influence in an enlarged European Union, into a dominant force in Europe.
Experts say that only a quarter of the population growth can be explained by immigration. The “bébé boom” heralded in figures released last week owes more to a government policy encouraging people to have children. The 35-hour working week introduced in 1997 has also played a role.
“My husband and I have had more time together since then,” explained Céline Barril, a 34—year-old legal secretary and the mother of three boys whose passage into the world was smoothed by substantial help from the government.
After the birth of each of the babies—the latest was André, one year ago—she received a cheque for £570. She qualifies for £330 a month in child support and the governmental largesse does not stop there.
If Barril, who earns £12,000 a year, stays home to look after the children, she will get £350 more a month to do so. For up to three years her employers would be legally obliged to take her back in the same position, should she wish to return.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the size of French families is growing and the pavements and parks of Paris are clogged with pushchairs. Family-friendly policies pop up in the least expected places. Bertrand Delanoë, the homosexual mayor of Paris, allows the enormous flat that came with his job in the majestic town hall to be used as a crèche for employees.
He had been on the point of adopting a child with his other half when he changed his mind on the grounds that his political responsibilities left him with too little time to fulfil the duties of a father.
“There is an aspiration among most French people to have children,” said Gérard-François Dumont, a Sorbonne professor and editor of Population & Future magazine. “Children are thought of as wealth.”
Given the level of financial benefits they bring, it is easy to understand why.
Consider the tax advantages. Couples with children can split their income for tax purposes into portions, enabling them to pay less with each additional child; and when Barril takes the children on the high-speed train to Marseilles to visit her sister, she flashes a card at the ticket office window to prove her membership of an exclusive club: la famille nombreuse.
Three children are needed to qualify as a “big family” and claim the 30% discount on train tickets. If she had four children, the reduction would be 40% and for seven, 70%. “We could not afford it otherwise,” said Barril, who also gets a discount on Métro and cinema tickets.
Another benefit for parents is the ability to work part-time if they wish in the first three years of a child’s life. “I am seriously considering it,” said Barril. “Especially when the weather is so nice.”
From the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 19th century, France had the biggest population in western Europe. It was overtaken in the mid-19th century by the future Germany. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 the French began fretting about whether they would have sufficient people to fend off future invasions.
This anxiety turned demography into a revered profession in the 1900s and the French have been dreaming up incentives to have children ever since—preferably lots of them.
“In particular there has been strong support for helping women to reconcile work and motherhood,” said France Prioux of the National Demographics Institute. “That has been the key.”
A dense bureaucracy has flourished around the encouragement of child-bearing and there is even a cabinet post for family affairs. The National Union of Family Associations, a lobby group for the family, is a power in the land that has quickly seen off any attempts by politicians to cut family allowances.
Dumont says that these have fallen by 30% in real terms since their 1950s heyday, when mothers got discounts in shops.
Even so there are few complaints: France spends more than any other EU country—4.5% of GDP—on policies promoting families. This is in stark contrast to Italy and Spain, where opposition to a government role in family affairs has been attributed by some experts to a lingering revolt against the fascist governments of the past that ordered women to produce more babies as an act of patriotism.
While Britain’s population is expected to rise in the next half century to 67m, the Germans are confronting a bleak outlook. Their population is expected to plummet from today’s 82m to 70m by 2050 as more women decide not to have children.
One of the reasons most often given is that they do not want to be considered “cruel mothers” who put their children into day care centres so that they can pursue their careers. Another reason is the lack of an appropriate man to be the father.
Barril was baffled by this.
“I cannot understand anybody saying they don’t want a child,” she said.