If the Head of State has demonstrated his desire to halt the fall in the birth rate, encouraging the French to have more children is not easy. There are many obstacles. Reversing this trend requires inventing a policy capable of responding to all the constraints weighing on couples.
It made him smile. A few days ago, during the lunch break, Romain discussed “babies” with his colleagues. They had just heard on the news that the French birth rate figures were falling and that Emmanuel Macron was calling for the country to be “demographically rearmed”. Around the table, his colleagues launched the debate. Quickly, two groups were formed: parents on one side, thirty-somethings who absolutely do not want children on the other. Everyone unfolds their arguments. After this lively exchange, the young 36-year-old father returned to his post in a pet store on the outskirts of Dijon (Côte-d’Or) and said with a smile: “Strengthen the French birth rate, yes, but with my two children, I have already given. A third, no. »
The situation is serious. On January 16, INSEE released figures showing a historic low in the number of births in 2023: 678,000 (-6.6% compared to 2022), a low level never reached since 1945. “Notre France will be stronger by the revival of the birth rate”, urged the President of the Republic the same evening, announcing a plan to fight against infertility and a new “birth leave” of six months for each parent, which would replace the leave parental. Measures intended to respond to the declining fertility rate: 1.68 children per woman in 2023, compared to 1.79 in 2022.
Will this be enough? In the industrialized world, two countries have pursued ambitious pronatalist policies – but more targeted on the mother than on a broader environment.
In twelve years, from 2006 to 2018, the South Korean state has released the equivalent of 120 billion euros to encourage births (free nurseries, longer parental leave, birth bonuses). In vain: the South Korean fertility rate stands at 0.84 children per woman (2020).
For almost fourteen years in office, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has also made the birth rate his hobby horse: no less than 30 forms of family support aid have been adopted. However, the fertility rate, even if it initially increased, has stagnated at a low level for several years (1.59 in 2020).
“Explicitly natalist policies, linked to tradition, based on allowances and women staying at home, and whose aim is only to increase the number of births, do not work, because young women have the impression to be captured,” explains Laurent Toulemon, research director at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED).
The issue of returning to work
The success of a pronatalist policy requires reconciling the constraints between motherhood and professional life. What the French education system does, for example. If it is imperfect in terms of student results in international rankings, its organization appears virtuous in terms of birth rates.
Even before school, with daycare, socialization takes place around six months of age, which allows parents to return to the job market. Likewise, elementary school hours, which start early in the morning and finish late in the afternoon, are conducive to a rapid return to professional life. “In Germany, school ends at noon. In South Korea or Japan, the pressure from the education system is such that couples only invest in one or even two children. In France, there is the idea that the “burden” of education rests partly on society, and this is relieving,” indicates Laurent Toulemon.
You still need to get childcare! In mid-January, the snow disrupted the routine of Margaux and Frédéric, parents of two little girls aged 7 and 2, in Versailles (Yvelines). Ten minutes before dropping off their youngest at the crèche, they received an email from the establishment which could not accommodate the children that day, the employees finding themselves stranded by bad weather. “I had no solution, my work does not allow me to be absent at the last minute, neither does my husband. I was about to leave my child with a stranger – the father of another baby. Finally, the situation was resolved, but it was tiring and complicated! » admits Margaux.
Faced with these daily difficulties, the young couple delays the plan for the third child. “It is often said that it takes a whole village to raise one child, so three… And decent accommodation for five in the Paris region is unaffordable. »
The weight of real estate
The dilemma faced by Margaux and Frédéric is common and explains, in part, the drop in births. If the number of women aged 50 who have given birth has been stable for fifty years, large families, often by default, are becoming an endangered species: in 1975, siblings with four children represented 12.2% of families, compared to 4 .5% currently. “The housing crisis has a key impact on the decline in the birth rate. When you are constrained by square meters, you stop at the second, or from the first. This explains a good part of the current decline,” says Robin Rivaton, economist specializing in real estate.
In Paris, where the situation seems inextricable, Claire, 32, does not contradict him. This Englishwoman married to a Frenchman, living in France for more than ten years, works as a tourist guide. Several times a week, she shows Anglo-Saxons around the Louvre or Montmartre, happy to present the treasures of her adopted country. “My husband and I earn a good living, but we live in 42 m2 in the inner suburbs. Impossible to start a family, a cot wouldn’t even fit in our room. With current prices, we are stuck, we cannot move,” explains the young woman, who has to stay near the capital because of her work.
“To demographically rearm the country, better access to housing is necessary,” assures Robin Rivaton. Because, another constraint, having children is expensive. “Macron is very nice, but bonuses and leave are not enough. For us, a third would mean changing a car, a house or major extension work,” lists Romain. Since the Second World War, the decline in births has been mirrored by economic crises (graph below).
A desire for freedom
To understand the decline in births, we must above all integrate the civilizational shift at work since the 1950s. “We have moved from a world where social and moral codes supported individuals to a society where the key word is “individualization of the person”, analyzes family sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, who continues: “Previously, a couple got married and then custom dictated that they had children. “It was like that”, especially since there was no contraception. Now, and here’s the new thing, everything depends on the person, the decision and the desire to have a child. »
This hedonism of the younger generations is increasingly superimposed on political justifications, linked to ecology and a fear of overpopulation of the planet. “We find these arguments particularly in graduate circles, but when we dig deeper, we realize that above all the desire for personal development and freedom predominates,” specifies the sociologist. Two notions that resonate with Claire, the guide. “I work a lot, I own a business, my hours are flexible, I have a lot of freedom. It may seem selfish but having a baby is such an irrevocable commitment that I prefer to take my time,” she admits.
This basic trend could well get worse with the next generation. With the lengthening of higher education and an average age of obtaining the first permanent contract at 28, entry into a stable married life is happening later and later. And as the niche narrows, hesitations multiply.
Above all, women’s work turns everything upside down. Having children has a potentially high cost for working women. Some refuse to pay the price or try to minimize it by not having multiple pregnancies or by delaying them. “There is a little tricky side. Even if my husband helps me, I have the impression that I would have to manage two days, one at work and the other at home, with household chores and the child,” Claire anticipates, convinced of the weight of the mental burden of mothers.
An intact desire for a child
So, boosting the French birth rate, a mission impossible? “It is a considerable challenge for society, because its renewal relies on people who have become accustomed to deciding based on their own well-being,” explains Jean-Claude Kaufmann, who is preparing a book on the subject. However, in 2020, a survey by the Kantar agency showed that the desire for children, and even large families, was at a high level. Ninety-one percent of French people surveyed said they wanted children, 48% said they wanted two, and 35% said they wanted three or four.
From then on, the key will come from the political response which must rise to the occasion. In this regard, Emmanuel Macron’s announcements seem unambitious, or even unsuitable, if they are not accompanied by other measures. “Housing should be part of the birth rate policy, just like school,” underlines Robin Rivaton.
Demographer Laurent Toulemon is optimistic: “For fifty years, French fertility has remained rather constant and generally high with cyclical variations depending on economic crises. The conditions for conciliation are better than elsewhere, I think it can start again. » Between two visits to the Louvre, Claire slips in a confidence: “I know that despite everything, one day, I will make it through. But one or two, not three,” she admits with a smile.
Birth rate and fertility rate: what’s the difference?
Birth-rate : ratio of the number of live births to the average total population over a year.
Fertility rate : number of living children of women at a given age compared to the average population of women of the same age.