Whatever happened to France?
The country’s declining fertility is an underrated cause of the 20th century’s misfortunes
Britain’s population will soon be in natural decline, so that over the course of the 2020s we’ll see 60,000 more deaths than births. We knew that this point was coming, but the ONS had previously estimated it occurring sometime in the following decade. Unlike the end of the world, forever being postponed, decline keeps on being brought forward.
From now on, all the increase in numbers is entirely down to immigration and, for the first time in modern history, Britain’s natural population is shrinking in peacetime. Births outpacing deaths is just one of those features associated with that brief window of modernity from the age of railways to the age of emails.
Britain is not alone. Seventeen European countries already see more deaths than births, a social transformation resulting from millions of individual decisions taken many decades ago, but which are only now having an effect.
Being a massive sexual inadequate who likes to read about Julius Caesar and Napoleon in my spare time, I normally have some sympathy for the great man theory of history. Yet some trends are hard to explain except as impersonal social forces, and yet still have huge consequences: the biggest example of the past few centuries is the unexplained collapse of French fertility from the 17thcentury. Although not the action of any individual ruler, or law, or even one particular cause, this played a decisive role in leading us down the road to the First World War, Communism, Nazism and everything else that went wrong in the last 120 years.
During the Middle Ages, France’s population was around five times that of England; indeed it was called the China of Europe, in reference to its densely populated countryside, teeming with half-starved peasants just itching to go on some demented crusade or murder the aristocrats.
Today Rouen is home to just over 100,000 people, with a larger surrounding population, and while it has a mostly beautiful city centre and a metro, it doesn’t feel like the centre of the world. Yet at the time of its capture by rampaging English hooligans under Henry V, the Norman capital had 70,000 people, twice the population of London; in fact, some parts of Normandy have fewer people today than in the 14th century.
Whereas the rest of western Europe saw steadily declining fertility from the 1880s, in France this occurred a good century earlier and in some areas further back still. Despite Britain exporting far greater numbers of people to the New World, not just to Australia and Canada but also the US,France’s population advantage declined steadily until, in the 20th century, the two countries were at parity.
The transformation began as far back as the mid-17th century. In Rouen, ‘completed fertility dropped between 1640 and 1792 from 7.4 to 4.2 children,’ an unusually low rate for the time; even today 31 countries, 29 of them in sub-Saharan Africa, have higher total fertility rates than that, TFR being a measure of how many children each woman will have in her lifetime.
As with demographic transitions everywhere, the process started at the top. Among Rouen’s gentry, fertility declined during this period to a TFR of just 2.5 towards the end of the 18th century.
One possible reason is the use of condoms among aristocratic men, which had grown in popularity in the 17th century as a response to the arrival of syphilis.
These ‘condons’ [sic] are first noted in England during the reign of Charles II – not a fan, quite clearly – but expense limited their use to the wealthy. Many men particularly disliked using them, which is hardly surprising since they were usually made of animal intestines; I imagine something resembling ‘Geronimo’, the condom that featured in adverts back in the early 90s when the government was trying to put us off sex.
The causes of declining fertility are almost universal – rising consumption, women’s education and employment, secularisation and housing costs are the main ones – but it’s still something of a mystery why France was so far ahead when these trends were also found among its neighbours.
One possible explanation from the Rouen study is that lower fertility was a consequence of ‘materialism, according to which the elite participates in new luxury activities and upper class women do not wish to be excluded from social life due to pregnancy or children.’ In other words, France may have had a richer and more cultivated gentry social life, which encouraged smaller families, a trend that was imitated by other classes.
It’s also possible that French fertility transition occurred earlier because the family inheritance was divided between siblings, while England had the old Norman system of primogeniture, a difference that would prove crucial in the way the two aristocracies evolved. In France there were therefore incentives not to have too many children, while in England excess sons were instead pushed into the military or Church, or would emigrate to the colonies.
The decline of religion certainly played a part. According to one paper, ‘Already during the eighteenth century there were signs of de-Christianisation. Attendance at mass became less frequent, the number of people joining the clergy diminished, and the proportion of religious books owned by those rich enough to buy them fell considerably.’ France had experienced horrific sectarian wars, costing more than two million lives, which may have had some impact on early secularisation, and it was home to the 18th century’s most atheistic philosophers.
It also had a revolution, both a product of this secularisation and an accelerant. Some 3,000 priests were killed in the course of the upheavals and another 32,000 fled the country, many to England. On the material front, the revolution may also have sped up demographic decline by making children more expensive to raise, less likely to work and more likely to consume.
Concern about population has always been a feature of French politics, because the country’s supremacy stemmed from its numbers. Louis XIV’s chief engineer, Vauban, once said that: ‘the greatness of kings… is measured in the number of their subjects’ – but then his man Louis XIV wasthe greatest of kings by most measures. Subjects were also soldiers, and asked what woman he loved most, Napoleon replied ‘she who has the largest number of children’.
Since then, the greatness of France’s kings, emperors and presidents has been in steady decline. In his fascinating The Human Tide, Paul Morland explored the many ways in which the cradle shaped the world, and how the relationship between countries is shaped by demography. Spain in the 16thcentury had twice England’s population, so to put the Armada scare in context, it would be like having a nearby hostile country of 135-140 million people (indeed, like Russia). By the 20th century Spain had half of Britain’s total, and was mostly seen as an irrelevancy in European affairs.
France lost out most of all, though, and over the 19th century the population of Great Britain rose from 10.5 million to 36.9 million (that’s excluding John Bull’s Other Island, where the century was disastrous,) while that of its closest continental neighbour increased only from 29 million to 40 million.
Following its defeat by Prussia in 1871, French politics became increasingly alarmed by its relative demographic decline. It’s TFR was now just 3.5, while Britain’s was over 5, as was the newly-united Germany – and rising. They were so concerned about the issue that in the early 20th century the National Assembly even debated a law automatically sacking any unmarried civil servant once they reached their mid-20s.
Morland says that ‘Had France's population grown at Great Britain’s rate, the maths suggests that by 1900 instead of 40 million, France would have had over 100 million people. Had that occurred and had France been able to feed and keep those people at home, France would have remained a great power by 1914 rather than slipping towards the second rank and reliant on Britain to protect it from the Germans. On the other hand, there are so many other historical counterfactuals to deal with. Would such a France inevitably have been more industrialised? Would such a level of industrialisation have been possible given France's resources of coal and steel?’
The French have historically been reluctant to emigrate – and who can blame them? – but population pressure might have forced many to move to Canada, the US and Argentina (not to mention Algeria, where things might have turned out even worse).
Yet whatever the other historical counterfactuals, the crucial fact of the 20th century was that Germany in 1900 now had 56 million people, and France could not contain Prussian aggression and militarism alone. The fate of the entire continent was already long made, in the beds of France’s chateaus.