Here's a little test. Which European country will have the largest population in the middle of the 21st century? (And remember, this is likely to give the nation added political heft in the European Union.) Could it be Britain? A dynamic economy, low unemployment and sturdy consumer confidence seem likely to spur the optimism that often accompanies childbearing in wealthy nations. How about Germany? Unification was akin to a couple's making a baby--and it inspired hope, at least initially, for a better future. What about Italy, the land of the beloved bambino, regardless of the nation's periodic booms or busts? No, the most populated nation in Western Europe in 2050 is expected to be... France.
Old Europe? Yes, indeed. France, with the second largest population in the EU, is engaged in what, by European standards, registers as a remarkable population boom. The nation leads in the number of newborns and has the second highest birthrate, after much smaller (and more Roman Catholic) Ireland. The results of France's 2004 Census are out--and fresh forecasts based on the numbers paint some 75 million people into the French landscape by midcentury, compared with 62.5 million today. That's at least 10 percent higher than the last round of forecasts, based on the 1999 Census. By contrast, Britain is stagnating, Germany is expected to lose 11 million people by midcentury and the number of Italians may cascade from 57.5 million to a Poland-esque 43 million. In fact, nearly all the EU's population growth in 2003 came from France--211,000 out of 216,000.
France hasn't seen anything like it since the post-war baby boom. Coming against the backdrop of a projected "birth dearth" for the rest of Western Europe, the numbers represent nothing less than what Gilles de Robien, minister of Capital Works, describes as a "thunderbolt" against the prospect of France's historical decline. The country's neighbors should take note. After all, few European leaders are prepared to enthusiastically embrace the alternative, less-dynamic populations, and its corollaries--less-vibrant economies, more immigration and shrinking pensions and health care. Says Gerard-Francois Dumont, Sorbonne professor and editor in chief of Population & Future magazine: "Every time I am at a conference, people want to know what is going on in France."
And what is going on? Like Italians, the French live in a family-friendly society. So why a French baby boom and an Italian bust? The difference apparently comes from policy and social supports that lessen pressure on would-be parents. Those who work fewer hours, have more job security, free day care and medical coverage are less likely to feel anguish over their children's basic needs. And more than most European countries, France offers all that, not to mention generous parental leave. Compared with elsewhere, says Dumont, France "allows families to better reconcile their professional and private lives." It's no coincidence, he adds, that countries with the fewest familial supports, like Italy and Spain, also have the lowest birthrates.
To appreciate just how strong the link is between public policy and private family planning, meet Pascale Pessy and her husband, Laurent. They recently gave up jobs in Britain to bring up their infant in the small, traditional village of Frangy in France's Haute-Savoie. "We came back for the French health-care system," Pascale says. Her son, born with a clubfoot, required care that wouldn't have been practical in Britain. "We would have had to pay for the four sessions a week at the physical therapist, and I would have had to quit my job to take him there, which would have meant no unemployment."
Such choices are common in many parts of Europe. Surveys indicate, for example, that many German women feel guilty if they work while bringing up their children. The result: German women are nearly three times more likely than French women to have no kids. "It isn't about a tax break here and some money there. It is about covering a whole range of life--from the workplace to holidays to the home," says Thomas Buettner, chief of the Estimates and Projections Section of the United Nations' Population Division. Can Europe solve its looming demographic crunch by embracing the French exception? You can bet governments across the continent will be looking closely.