April 26, 2006
French Exception: Experts Ponder High Birth Rate
By Anna Willard
PARIS -- Beatrice Riobe has played her part in giving France the second highest birth rate in Europe.
Riobe has nine children aged 4 to 19: her case is rare and this year the government honored her with a special gold medal awarded annually to successful large families.
Experts say France's high birth rate -- women have an average of 1.9 children -- is probably due to the government's long-term policy of rewarding those who have children, offering medals, financial incentives and favorable work rules.
"I think there are a certain number of things that are done in France, particularly (giving) time off for parents, that create conditions that lend themselves to having children," she said. Her husband works but she took parental leave from her nursing job after her third child and has not worked since.
Fertility rates are a key part of the population puzzle. Last year, the United Nations said declining birth rates in rich nations meant there would be little or no population growth over the next four decades.
Industrial countries as a whole are expected to see little change in their total population of 1.2 billion in that period. A decline is forecast in Germany, Italy, and Japan.
France comes second to Ireland -- where women have an average 1.99 children -- in the European Union fertility stakes. Slovenia is at the bottom with just 1.22 babies per woman, according to data from the Paris-based National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED).
"What's pretty interesting about France is that it has been pretty direct in saying they want to have more children which is quite unusual in a European context," said Jonathan Grant, a director at the Rand Europe research institute.
"WE NEED MORE BABIES"
None of the 25 countries in the EU meet the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman, the level needed to stop the population aging. An aging population increases pressures on government budgets as health and pension costs rise while taxes on workers' incomes shrink.
French births are rising. Last year, 775,000 babies were born, an increase from 2004, helping to bring the total population to 62.9 million. But it's still not enough.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said last September that France's birth rate was insufficient to ensure a stable population and announced new incentives for having babies.
He said France would create 15,000 new day-care places, double tax credits for some childcare costs and improve financial conditions for parents looking after a sick child.
A parent who puts his or her job on hold to raise a third child would receive 750 euros ($920) per month for one year, around 50 percent more than the monthly amount families with two children receive for a three-year period, he said.
Shortening the time period but increasing the sum aims to help mothers get back into their jobs quicker after giving birth, and prevent any damage to their careers.
"In France, it's easier for women and couples to manage working and having children," said Gilles Pison, from INED.
Cultural attitudes, perhaps influenced by government policy, can also play a role, he said.
"A woman who leaves her newborn baby in a creche (daycare center) all day is not always very well regarded in some countries," he said.
"But in France, it's the other way round, we think that if you take your child to the creche when they're very young, it's good for them because it teaches them to be sociable."
In France, children are welcomed in restaurants and bars and it is quite common to see them out with their parents in the evenings. In some other countries, such as Britain, children are sometimes restricted to certain areas in bars and eating places.
Researchers admit that their understanding of the relatively high French birth rate still retains a degree of mystery.
"For every rule you can come up with you find an exception," said Grant. Pison agreed: "There is a bit of mystery. We are doing studies but we don't yet have all the secrets."
For example, it is sometimes suggested that because the two most fertile countries in Europe -- France and Ireland -- are mainly Roman Catholic countries, the Catholic tradition of having large families would help explain the high birth rates.
But Italy and Spain, two other Catholic countries, fall near the bottom of the EU list, in 16 and 17th position.
Experts also point out that while France's fertility rate can partly be attributed to generous social support, Ireland is more fertile and does not have as many incentives.
Eunan King, senior economist at NCB Stockbrokers, says Ireland will likely enjoy 15 more years of economic growth of around 5 percent a year thanks to a young, growing workforce.
"We think (demographics) is the key driver of the Irish growth story and it is one of the key constraints on Europe," he said, adding that the baby boom in Ireland happened about three decades later than in the rest of Europe because of poor official policies that led to net emigration.
For other governments, migrants may fill the void as their own native populations decline. The United Nations said this month that migrants will likely account for any population growth that most developed nations, especially in Europe, experience over the next 30 years.
(Additional reporting by Paul Hoskins in Dublin)