France has been Europe's most fertile country but that could soon be a thing of the past if the latest statistics from France's national office of statistics Insee are anything to go by.
A total of 767,000 babies were born in France last year, which is 17,000 fewer than in 2016, representing a 2.1 percent drop in the country's birth rate.
There are now an average of 1.88 children per female in France compared to 2016 when that figure stood at 1.92 and 2014 when it was two children per woman.
This rate has been on the decline for the past three years in a country that was once proud of its high fertility levels.
In 2015 The Local reported that France had the highest birth rate in Europe at 1.96 children per woman, although this was down from the symbolic rate of two children per mother in 2014.
Newspaper Le Monde reacted to the new stats with the question: “Is it the end of the French exception?”
Photo: Kristina Servant/Flickr
While France remains the European Union's most fertile country ahead of Ireland according to the most recent data available, it seems unlikely this will remain the case for long if the current downturn in birth rate continues.
But why is the birth rate declining?
Part of the reason, as reported by Insee is that the lowering birth rate is partly due to the fact that there are fewer and fewer women of child-bearing ages in France.
The number of 20 to 40-year-old women have been on the decrease in France since the 1990's, as women born in the baby-boom period of 1946-1964 start to leave that age bracket.
The latest report from Insee showed that fewer women aged 25-29 were having children, a trend which has existed since 2000 and has accelerated since 2015.
The average age at which women are giving birth is 30.6 compared to 29.8 ten years ago, Insee reported.
The economic downturn also may have something to do with it, according to Insee.
The reason why France was considered to have maintained a healthy birth rate was down to its generous health and welfare system, relatively low childcare costs and high public spending on families.
But in recent years, the economic squeeze has seen budgets tightened.
Since 2012, fewer than 50,000 new child care spaces have been created (compared to the 275,000 that were promised). And for Gérard-François Dumont demography professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, there is no doubt over the correlation between the two.
“For 40 years, changes in the birth rate have followed governmental policies regarding the family,” he said. “The effects of the measures taken since 2012 started to be felt in 2016 and this increased in 2017. We must not forget the drop in grants to local authorities who as a result have been more reluctant to develop childcare. The difficulties of reconciling family life and professional life are greater.”
But other specialists were less direct in their criticisms of the government.
“It is difficult to establish a direct link but the decline in aid could enter the game,” Laurent Toulemon, demography expert at the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED) told Le Monde. “We used to have a very inclusive family policy, with the idea that the state helps all families. Its structural erosion may have had an effect on French confidence.”
Others stressed that the reasons behind a change in a country's birth rate is hard to pin down.
“There is no explanatory model of fertility variations,” said Laurent Chalard, a population expert at the-Sorbonne. “They result from personal decisions and are linked to changes in mentalities.”
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.
And most European countries saw declining birth rates that matched their countries' gloomy economies in the face of the financial crisis.
Insee has previously concluded that birth rates fell if there was a steep rise in unemployment, as was seen in southern European nations, or a significant drop in wages, as was seen in the UK.
And why does it matter?
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.
In order to stabilise the number of babies being born, France has prioritized key incentives like subsidized daycare, cash support payments to families and a range of discounts.
But if they want to keep their crown as the baby-making champions of Europe, France may have to come up with some new ideas.