France's Baby Boom

The brooding French may be the world’s biggest pessimists—61 percent anticipated more economic hardship in 2011, more than twice the global average, according to a recent Gallup International poll—but they’re still adding new infants to their healthy broods.

Previous financial crises have coincided with waning fertility in the country (in 1993 the rate hit a post-WWII low). So demographers surmised that the most recent slowdown would stymie France’s remarkable fertility. But in 2010, France’s mini-boom in babies not only continued, it grew yet again. French women are now having children at a rate (2.01 each) not seen since 1973, when oil shocks brought France’s long postwar baby boom to an end. France charts well above the European average (1.6 in 2009), second only to Ireland. Despite fewer women of childbearing age, France produced 20,000 more babies than it did in 2000, a boom year.

Relatively generous family subsidies and a safety net that picks up the slack during economic crises tell part of the story. They help disconnect family decisions from economics, says Pascale Breuil, head of demography at France’s statistical authority, INSEE. Having a child between jobs, a riskier prospect elsewhere, might seem like smart timing for some French women. But the makeup of 2010 moms is also telling, with the latest increase entirely down to women over the age of 30. Mothers in their late 30s accounted for 17 percent of children born, and 40-somethings had twice the number of babies they did two decades ago. French women haven’t had so many babies so late since the years after World War II. Pessimism might postpone a pregnancy, but nature’s limits don’t waver with the CAC 40.

Another theory is that the bounty of babes is less an exception to the mood than an expression of it, a withdrawal from the gloomy big picture that public policy affords, in a culture that highly values children. Or as Le Monde summed up the sentiment, with melancholy Gallic flair, “Let’s make babies to forget this world of brutes and money.”

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