Ahhh France, the country of wine, cheese, revolutions and incredibly high fertility rates.
Since the 2000s, France has topped all of Europe and the United States in fertility rankings; French women have an average of 2.01 live births per woman, versus the average 1.9 of both the United Kingdom and the United States (the numbers are even lower in the rest of Europe). France is one of the few countries where the birth rate has risen, rather than fallen in the past decade or so.
And it's not just the stereotypical French romance that keeps the birthrates up. Rather, French women keep reproducing, in part, because of gender equality and a more flexible definition of "family."
There is nothing straightforward or natural about "the family". It is a very complex world based on social norms, what the American sociologist Ronald Rindfuss calls the "family package". "In Japan, for instance, this package involves many constraints," says Ined demographer Laurent Toulemon. "A woman entering into a relationship must also accept marriage, obey her husband, have a child, stop working after it is born and make room for her ageing in-laws. It's a case of all or nothing. In France the package is more flexible: one doesn't have to get married or have children. Norms are more open and families more diverse."
The picture is very different in Scandinavia and France. "In these countries the family norm is much more flexible, with late marriages, reconstituted families, single parents, much more frequent births outside marriage and divorces than further south," Toulemon adds. "People are far less concerned about the outlook for the family [as an institution]."
Toulemon also adds that there is a strong overlap between a country's fertility rate and women in the workforce: "In countries with relatively buoyant populations, such as France and Scandinavia, women play an important part in the labour market."
The Guardian also points out that French women's access to the workplace post-childbirth isn't nearly as hindered as it is throughout much of Europe and the United States. Namely, parents have access to long, paid maternity leave and more than half of children under the age of three qualify for state-run collective care.
The policies are the result of a fundamentally a difference of perspective of the role of the state. France has a rather long history of the state and the family working closely together, rather than viewing the two as oppositional forces:
In the 1930s and again after the war, the state took over, setting up a family-allowance system for all parents, backed by tax incentives. These financial advantages were gradually followed by amenities for infants and small children. "For pro-child policies to work they must be generous, but there is a need for continuity too, built on a consensus, so that families can trust the state," Thévenon affirms. "As is the case in France."
France's big secret: Don't make having children financially or socially punitive for women.
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