While everybody knows how babies are made, not every government has figured out how to encourage its constituency to reproduce. Indeed, some of the countries that have been the most powerful historically are now facing “population disasters” and “timebombs” as their birth rates fall to perilous lows, like Spain (with a total fertility rate of 1.3 babies per woman in a lifetime) and Japan (with a 1.4 fertility rate). These are well below what demographers take to be the “replacement rate” to maintain a stable population of 2.1 children per woman.
This means that many populations in the West and East Asia are getting smaller (half of Japanese villages will be abandoned by 2040, by one estimation) and older. As populations gray, there’s a smaller proportion of people who are actively working — and thus supporting, both through tax dollars and caretaking, the very young and very old in a given country. This can create giant economic problems that are too technical to get into here.
Then there’s France.
The French, as one headline recently proclaimed, are the “best baby-makers in all of Europe” with an impressive 2.01 fertility rate. And this figure reveals something about the reality of how people decide to raise children. As demographer Richard Jackson, the president of the research nonprofit Global Aging Institute, tells Science of Us, there’s something perhaps counterintuitive about developed countries: The more women work, the more babies are born.
You might assume the opposite: If fewer women worked, families would be better situated to having kids. That was true in developed countries until the 1990s, Jackson says, when women’s liberation had become more fully mainstreamed. From then on, if a country didn’t have the supports enabling women to both pursue work and family (like flexible labor markets in the U.S. or public child-rearing support in the Nordics), women were given the binary choice of either having kids or pursuing a career — which is why in places like South Korea, where women earn 65 percent of what men earn and tend to leave the labor force in their 30s, the birthrate has cratered. It’s a “paradoxical situation,” Jackson says: The more traditionalist a culture is about gender roles, the fewer babies people have.
Which brings us, as these things do, to Prussia. Back in the 19th century, that no-longer-extant Germanic state was kind of a big deal, but not as big of a deal as France. In early modern Europe, France had the largest economy and largest population, with Paris being the largest city in Europe. Because of this, Jackson says, France was the first European country to start going through what’s called the “demographic transition,” or the shift from high mortality and high fertility (lots of dying, lots of babies) to low mortality and low fertility (less dying, fewer babies) thanks to increases in crop yields and better public health, like taking care of the water supply, better personal hygiene, and the like. Then, in 1870, Prussia decided to beef with France because Otto von Bismarck, that fly-hat-wearing, social-security-founding instigator, wanted to unify Germany (to put it simply). So he edited a correspondence to make it sound like the king of Prussia had insulted the French ambassador, sending the French people into a warlike paroxysm. Contrary to that country’s previous Napoleonic glory, France got wrecked by a newly unified Deutschland. At the time, Jackson says, the lowered birthrate was blamed for the loss (an idea consonant with mercantilism, a once-fashionable political philosophy that contended that country’s economic virility rested on its population size). So the French took to what Jackson calls “pronatal” policy: Regardless of whether the left or right was in power, politicians wanted babies. In this way, baby-friendly policy has been in France way before the 1960s and 1970s, when the women’s liberation movement pushed pronatal policy in places like Norway. In babies, as in fashion, the French had it down first.
Because of that long history (thanks, Otto), governmental support for families is baked into French culture like so many buttery croissants. A prime example of this is the Caisse d’allocations familiales, or the Family Allowances Fund, which has been around since the 1930s. Not only is there parental leave — moms get their full salary for 16 weeks of maternity leave, and 26 weeks if it’s her third child — but also “family allowances,” where mothers of young children are essentially paid by the government, with extra money for the third kid. According to the EU, a full 2.6 percent of the French GDP went to supporting families in 2014.
A lot of this is enabled by the role of French government in public life. “The state in France is an expression of what it means to be French,” Jackson says, while in the U.S. the trust in the government has cratered over the past 50 years. There’s a parallel sentiment in countries once ruled by Nazis or Fascists: Asking people in Italy, France, or Germany to make babies for the fatherland is a tall order, demographer Laurent Toulemon told The Guardian. This might be most clearly seen in child care: In France, it’s normal for young mothers to drop their young ones off at state-sponsored (or private) day care — it’s thought to be part of the child’s socialization, Jackson says. In this way, the number of women in the labor force can stay up (and their careers can continue on) while also raising the next generation of fashionistas, beret-makers, or whatever it is French people do. That’s what France understands, and what Mediterranean Europe and East Asia are seemingly missing: When culture and government make it possible to combine work and family, it gets way easier for women (and men) to have it all. And the babies follow.