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Should we really be worried about France’s declining fertility rate?

Hervé Le Bras
Hervé Le Bras
Research director in demographics at EHESS and Emeritus research director at Ined
Key takeaways
  • The year 2023 marked a fall in the fertility rate in France, with the number of births down 6.7% on the previous year.
  • In European countries, a pattern seems to be emerging around the figure of 1.5 children per woman.
  • The reasons for this convergence include the later arrival of the first child, changes in gender relations, and the importance given by women to their professional careers.
  • In theory, this demographic change will not affect the pension system until more than 20 years from now, when the younger generations enter the labour market.
  • There is no proven link between good economic health and high fertility rates, and pro-natalist policies generally have very little effect on the number of births.


Fertility rates fell sharply in France in 2023. How do you explain this?

In 2023, 678,000 babies were born in France, 6.7% few­er than in 2020 and 16% few­er than in 2010. We are now at an aver­age of 1.68 chil­dren per woman, the low­est fer­til­i­ty rate since 1945. There was a very rapid fall last year, which no one quite under­stands. We don’t know what could have caused this sud­den down­turn; there were no major polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic events, as was the case in the Unit­ed States in 2009, for exam­ple, fol­low­ing the cred­it crunch. It would be irre­spon­si­ble to attempt to over­sim­pli­fy the rea­sons behind this sharp fall. Nor is there any link with the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. The decline in fer­til­i­ty began around 2012 in France, when there was a marked drop. The decline was then fair­ly steady until 2023.

How does France compare with birth rates in Europe and the rest of the world?

Glob­al­ly, the con­trasts are increas­ing. The world can be divid­ed into three main regions: a part of Africa, from the Sahel to Botswana, where there is a demo­graph­ic explo­sion, with the record being Niger (6.8 chil­dren per woman); the Far East, where fer­til­i­ty is falling rapid­ly, with the record being South Korea (0.78 chil­dren per woman); and final­ly, the rest of the world, where births fluc­tu­ate between 1.5 and 2.5 chil­dren per woman on average.

France has had one of the high­est birth rates in Europe for quite some time, and this is still the case, but not by much. Ire­land and Roma­nia are more or less at the same lev­el. Across the Euro­pean Union, there is con­ver­gence at around 1.5 chil­dren per woman. Euro­stat data clear­ly show a fair­ly sharp fall in all the Euro­pean coun­tries where births were high­est. On the oth­er hand, where fer­til­i­ty was the low­est, it has remained so or risen slight­ly. There is no doubt that a Euro­pean fam­i­ly mod­el is emerging.

Are there any explanations for the convergence of European countries around the figure of 1.5 children per woman?

The main rea­son for this con­ver­gence is a change in the rela­tion­ship between men and women. Women, who are far more high­ly edu­cat­ed than men, are less accept­ing of the dou­ble work­ing day and the unequal divi­sion of labour than they were in the 1980s, for exam­ple. This mech­a­nism is in the process of being set in motion in many Euro­pean coun­tries. In addi­tion, the aver­age age of moth­ers at the birth of their first child con­tin­ues to rise, which tech­ni­cal­ly reduces fer­til­i­ty, as it is spread over a slight­ly longer peri­od. For this rea­son, the fer­til­i­ty rate falls at younger ages, up to 30–35, then sta­bilis­es and ris­es there­after. Final­ly, there is an increase in the pro­por­tion of women who have no chil­dren or only one.

Are we facing a major change in the birth rate, like the baby boom, for example?

It’s the same thing because there is a turn­ing point. When you fol­low demo­graph­ic indices, there is a point at which they reverse, but that takes time. It takes at least one gen­er­a­tion; every 30 or 40 years. So, there was the baby-boom gen­er­a­tion, the gen­er­a­tion that delayed child­bear­ing, and now we’re fac­ing a rever­sal that will lead to a fair­ly low fer­til­i­ty rate of around 1.5 chil­dren per woman.

We always think that imme­di­ate events will have con­se­quences, but only a few events mark a rapid change. The oil cri­sis in 1973 was a major turn­ing point, but it was pre­ced­ed by the arrival of mod­ern con­tra­cep­tion in 1965, which trig­gered a fall in fertility.

What impact could the drop in births have on the country’s economy?

There is a lot of con­fu­sion about this impact. At the time of the pen­sion reform, the polit­i­cal right claimed that the drop in the birth rate was very seri­ous for the bal­ance of the sys­tem. In real­i­ty, it depends on the time frame you look at. The pen­sion sys­tem will only be affect­ed when the gen­er­a­tions born today enter the labour mar­ket, i.e. in just over 20 years’ time. Until 2045, there­fore, there will be no prob­lem in rela­tion to pen­sions. Will there be any neg­a­tive con­se­quences in the short or medi­um term? It’s dif­fi­cult to say. There will be changes in con­sump­tion, an increase in pur­chas­ing pow­er for adults, low­er costs for schools, or the pos­si­bil­i­ty of hav­ing few­er chil­dren per class… It’s not all neg­a­tive or pos­i­tive. I car­ried out a study show­ing that the prob­lem of pen­sions will affect the gen­er­a­tions that have had few­er or no chil­dren, so they will have had more dis­pos­able income for them­selves at the ages when chil­dren are con­ceived. This makes sense in a way that is rarely mentioned.

Is there a clear link between a country’s economic health and population growth?

No, that’s an old idea. The French have very much hoped that there would be a link. There have been many stud­ies, notably those by the econ­o­mist Alfred Sauvy, but they have nev­er shown any­thing of the sort. Cor­re­la­tions don’t work. It’s too dis­joint­ed, there are so many inter­me­di­aries between eco­nom­ic and demo­graph­ic growth, such as edu­ca­tion, investment…

If there is no evidence that a high birth rate leads to economic growth, why do we pay so much attention to the birth rate in France?

The impor­tance of fer­til­i­ty dates back to the defeat by Ger­many in 1870. It was thought that because the Ger­mans had more chil­dren, they would have more sol­diers. The defeat was equat­ed with France’s low fer­til­i­ty rate, which was incor­rect. In real­i­ty, Ger­many had few­er sol­diers at the time. The Church claimed that the defeat was a pun­ish­ment because the French were not hav­ing enough chil­dren. This was a source of regret, which led to the devel­op­ment of pro-natal­ist move­ments. The idea spread that it was bad to have only one child. Psy­chol­o­gists claimed that an only child socialised bad­ly, which lat­er led to the cre­ation of nurs­eries and crèch­es. Com­bat­ing the one-child pol­i­cy ensured that the fer­til­i­ty rate rose again dur­ing the baby boom from 1945–1946 onwards. It’s a ques­tion of morals, spe­cif­ic to France. Coun­tries such as Eng­land and Ger­many have nev­er been afraid of hav­ing low fer­til­i­ty rates; in fact, his­tor­i­cal­ly, the oppo­site has been true. So, there is still this idea in the French men­tal­i­ty that hav­ing chil­dren is good for the coun­try. This theme is par­tic­u­lar­ly strong among politi­cians, because it shows that they care about the nation.

Emmanuel Macron wants to introduce parental leave to bring about a “demographic rearmament”. Do pro-natalist policies have any real effect on the birth rate?

Birth rate poli­cies have almost no effect. Many stud­ies have been car­ried out, par­tic­u­lar­ly in oth­er coun­tries. In 1967, Roman­ian Pres­i­dent Nico­lae Ceaușes­cu banned abor­tion. The fol­low­ing year, fer­til­i­ty dou­bled, but it quick­ly dropped again. In Chi­na, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, it was not the one-child pol­i­cy that caused a fall in birth rates. By 1978, when it was intro­duced, Chi­na had already gone from 5 chil­dren per woman to 2.7. This mea­sure mere­ly accom­pa­nied the trend. And when the one-child pol­i­cy was aban­doned in 2016, instead of ris­ing, fer­til­i­ty plum­met­ed (to 1.11 chil­dren per woman in 2022).

In Euro­pean coun­tries, there is often a wind­fall effect fol­low­ing a pro-natal­ist mea­sure. There is a small rise in the num­ber of births in the fol­low­ing year or two, then a small fall, and the ini­tial lev­el is reached again. In Hun­gary, a pro-natal­ist pol­i­cy is cur­rent­ly being imple­ment­ed. How­ev­er, fer­til­i­ty trends are evolv­ing in the same way as in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. Small advan­tages are not going to change a deci­sion as impor­tant as that of build­ing a fam­i­ly. OECD econ­o­mist Olivi­er Thévenon puts the increase in fer­til­i­ty at 5% if we off­set a quar­ter of the cost of hav­ing a child, which is a lot. That’s 0.1 chil­dren in France. Increas­ing­ly, the dis­tri­b­u­tion of fer­til­i­ty rates cor­re­sponds to major cul­tur­al group­ings, such as South­ern Europe and East Asia…

Sirine Azouaoui

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