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French birth rate drops below symbolic level

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French birth rate drops below symbolic level
A new study shows French women are having fewer children. Photo: Kristina Servant/Flickr
12:42 CET+01:00
France's population broke the 66 million mark at the start of 2014, but its women are having fewer children, new figures revealed. Is it the fault of a bad economy and should French leaders be worried?

France’s fertility rate has fallen below the symbolic level of two babies per woman and 2013 saw the slowest population growth in the country for well over a decade, new data revealed this week.

The 280,000 births in 2013 marked a 1.3 percent decline from 2012 with France’s fertility rate falling from 2.03 children per woman in 2010 to 1.99 children last year, according to the France's national statistics agency INSEE.

Despite the falling birth rate, France did still manage to break the 66 million population mark on January 1st, 2014. That’s an increase of 280,000 residents, or 0.4 percent, over the previous year. But despite the increase the slender growth rate was France's weakest since 2000.

An explanation of the drop in births is complex, but the mix likely includes the economic downtown. France is battling an unemployment rate around 10.5 percent, its highest in 16 years.

“The choice to have a child depends on family and work plans, but can also be influenced by the economic climate,” INSEE Head of Demographic Studies Pascale Breuil said.  

Despite the drop in the birth rate, France remains second only to Ireland when it comes to Europe's most fertile nations. Women in Ireland, where the population is 4.6 million, had on average 2.01 children each in 2013.

These figures stand in stark contrast to Germany and Portugal, which had the lowest fertility rates on the continent. Germany recorded a rate of 1.38 per woman, followed by Portugal with 1.28 offspring per woman.

The concern for economies is that a lagging birth rate means a smaller and smaller population of workers supporting an ever growing number or retirees who are drawing pensions. They also raise the possibility of shrinking nations, as countries need a fertility rate of 2.07 children per woman to keep their populations steady.

This trend may also be hitting France. Since 1995 the number of women of childbearing age has been in decline. Despite having fewer mothers, France has prioritized incentives like subsidized daycare, cash support payments to families and a range of discounts, which are all considered key to keeping the birth rate steady in recent decades.

Just a few years ago, before the full weight of the economic crisis hit in Europe, the news about birth rates was much more positive.

"In OECD countries, the birth rate has gone from an average of 1.69 children [per woman] in 1995 to 1.71 in 2008," said a 2011 report from French demographers Ined. "The increase has been particularly marked in Spain, France, Belgium, the UK and Ireland."

While rising wealth seemed to be an important factor, the report's authors found it wasn't the only one. 

"In the majority of wealthy countries, the increase in the birth rate is associated with a higher rate of employment among women," said report authors Angela Luci and Olivier Thévenon. "The possibility for them to combine work and family appears to be a key factor in the increase in the birth rate."

The report found that the birth rate tends to be higher in countries where women work the most, such as Scandinavia, where "the employment rate of women is over 80 percent and the fertility rate is the highest."

Death rate rising

While the stats from INSEE showed a declining birth rate, they also revealed France's mortality rate was rising, with 2,000 more deaths in 2013 than in 2013. This rise was mainly put down to a flu epidemic during last year's lengthy cold snap. 

Life expectancy on the up

However, despite the rise in deaths, the average life expectancy of men and women in France continues to rise. In the last ten years the average life of a woman in France has gone up by 2.1 years and is now at 85 years - the highest life expectancy in Europe. French men on the other hand can expect to live to an average age of 78.7 years old.

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