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Europe: Amid Europe's Languishing Demographics, French Birthrate Bears Examination

While most of the European continent -- especially Central and Eastern Europe -- is suffering from very low demographic renewal, France's birthrate is soaring. Analysts say this has far less to do with French sexual behavior than it does with a complex set of sociological factors.

Paris, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A recent (25 February) study by France's official Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies -- known by its French acronym, INSEE -- says the country's birthrate remained impressively high for the second year in a row.

The INSEE report says the number of births compared to the number of deaths has risen slowly in France since 1997, and quite dramatically in 2000 and 2001. It notes that a similar jump in the French birthrate has not occurred since the early 1980s.

INSEE's analysts discount any "millennium effect" in the strong birthrate in 2000, which showed a jump of 4 percent in the births-to-deaths ratio over the year before. Most French families today have at least two children, in strong contrast to most other European Union countries, except Ireland, where abortion remains a crime.

One of the lowest birthrates in the 15-nation European Union belongs to Germany, whose population has shown negative growth for decades after a brief postwar "baby boom."

INSEE estimates that, based on preliminary figures, the overall EU figure for 2001 will be slightly negative (minus 0.1 percent).

Outside the EU, only Norway and Iceland have attained a degree of fertility similar to that of France. By contrast, the figures for Central and Eastern Europe, including Russia, are far lower than in Western Europe.

How to explain the surge in French births? INSEE analysts laugh off the common notion that French sexual behavior has anything to do with the current baby boom. They note that the last authoritative study of French bedroom behavior, published nine years ago, showed the nation's vaunted lovers only in the middle ranks of Western nations. The French were far outdone in frequency of sexual relations by several countries, most notably the United States.

A few weeks ago, a "qualitative" study of French sexual behavior was published, written by sociologist Janine Mossuz-Lavau. She says that only in the past several years have sex and sexual practices become a non-taboo subject in French public discourse -- a phenomenon that occurred far earlier in many other Western countries.

So what is responsible for the French birthrate breakthrough? Demographic experts at INSEE point to a number of factors. First, they say, there is the generally better economic situation in France over the past five years, particularly among young people, where unemployment has declined considerably. That has permitted many more couples to work and raise children at the same time.

Another important factor for INSEE analysts is the extension of the age of maternity in France, which has also occurred in recent years in many other Western countries. The mean age for bearing children in France today is over 29 years old, and many women are having children well into their 40s.

What explains the jump in fertility in France as compared to many of its EU partners? Francois Clenche, chief of INSEE's division for demographic surveys and studies, put it this way to RFE/RL: "Perhaps [the reason is that] it is easier in France to reconcile maternity with a career. [There is also] the organization of the working world -- in particular, the right [for women] to continue working while raising young children. There is, too, the organization of the care of young children [while mothers are working], which is quite widespread in France. A large number of measures [in this area] have been taken in recent years, They help reconcile work with maternity. It is easier for French women to continue working while raising children than it is for their counterparts in neighboring [EU] countries."

Clenche says France reported a rate of 1.9 children per woman in 2001. Even though this is less than the so-called "replacement of generations," or break-even figure, of 2.11, Clenche says French women will, in the mean, exceed that number. She says compared with Eastern Europe and most other EU nations, 1.9 is an impressive jump.

Clenche also sees France's long tradition of birth-control measures as distinguishing it from many other EU members -- and an important factor in defining its sexual patterns.

"France is a country with a tradition of regulating birthrates that is significant and widespread. For more than two centuries, it has been clear that French families regulate their number of children by various means. Thus, it's clear there's little direct relation between France's sexual practices and the fecundity of its women."

At the EU's statistical agency Eurostat, other demographic analysts note that France's soaring birthrate has now almost surpassed that of Ireland. Francois Bovagnet, a Eurostat population analyst, spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from his agency's headquarters in Luxembourg. He says Spain, Italy, and Greece suffer from the lowest birthrates in the EU.

"The southern members [of the EU] have the lowest birthrates. The countries in real [demographic] crisis are those of Eastern Europe, some of which have birthrates even lower than those of Spain or Greece."

Is there an example for Central and Eastern Europe to follow in the French case? Yes, say the analysts, to a degree. The Eastern European nations, they suggest, must change popular attitudes against the idea of working women also being able to raise children.

The Eastern European countries, the analysts add, must also build an infrastructure for day care for children. This means not only creating day-care centers but also training personnel. This implies a considerable outlay of money, which many former communist nations simply don't have.

But the analysts emphasize that, in their view, the French example has its limits. They say that France's exceptional birthrate has a lot to do with its unique traditions and postwar modernization and that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that want to increase their populations will largely have to find their own way.