French Families Grow Smaller, and Government Asks Why

HELENE and Christian de Maredsous have just brought a new baby into their Paris home. And although they are thrilled with their third daughter, Camille, they would still like to have a son - so in a couple of years they will likely try to have a fourth child.

Families with numerous children such as the Maredsous are becoming a rarity in France. The country had long stood apart from the trend of most other European countries toward low birthrates.

But statistics released last week show that, while the French have yet to sour on child bearing to the extent that the Spanish, Italians, and Germans have, the trend here toward fewer children is accelerating.

``France is still resisting [the trend] compared to most other countries of the European Union,'' says Guy Desplanques, a demographer with the National Institute of Demographic Studies here. ``But the decreases we're registering [in fecundity] are nevertheless quite strong, and for the first time we're seeing the decrease'' at all ages.

After a stable rate during much of the 1980s that averaged about 1.8 children per French woman, the rate in 1992 dropped to 1.73. New statistics released by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) show that the rate in 1993 dropped to 1.65. That rate, well below the 2.1 required for long-term population stability, is still above Spain's 1.23, Italy's 1.26, Germany's 1.3, and Belgium's 1.56.

France's population is still growing - by about 300,000 last year, to 57.8 million - and will continue to grow until the end of the decade, Mr. Desplanques says. After that, France could join other European countries where deaths outnumber births.

For ``aging'' countries, the consequences of a weak birthrate are that fewer young workers will be paying to support a larger retired population. The country's falling birthrate has led some groups, including the far-right National Front, to advocate heftier ``pro-birth'' policies to encourage young couples to have more children.

Public policy can have an influence: Many specialists credit fiscal and other ``pro-family'' policies for giving Sweden its high birthrate: 2.09. In Sweden, child care is universally available and free, parental leave is generous and remunerated.

In France, too, econometric studies show France's existing pro-natality policies have tended to boost the country's birthrates slightly, Desplanques says. But many French believe such policies are less generous than they were after World War II.

High unemployment and the severe recession of the past few years have no doubt discouraged women from bringing more little French into the world.

So, too, has another trend revealed in INSEE's study: Marriages recorded in 1993 fell 40 percent below the number of 20 years ago. Today a third of all French births are to unmarried women.

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