At his press conference in early January 2024, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed alarm at the birth rate crisis affecting the country and announced a number of measures designed to halt the downward trend. But the truth is that the policies he has pursued since his first term in office are systematically harming the interests of families, and the new solutions proposed will not change the situation.
For several years now, France’s birth rate figures, like those in other European countries, have not been good. For a long time, France boasted a higher birth rate than its neighbours, but this blessed period is over. According to figures from the French National Statistics Institute (INSEE), 678,000 babies were born in France in 2023. This is the lowest number of births since 1945 and the end of the Second World War. Overall, the number of births in 2023 will be around 20% lower than in 2010.
President Macron expressed his alarm at this in his press conference on January 16th. Advocating the need for France to “rearm itself demographically,” he put forward two measures to be implemented in the coming months: a major plan to combat infertility, described as the “taboo of the century” since one in four couples who want children are unable to have them, and an overhaul of parental leave.
After all the hype, unfortunately, there are few miracles to be expected from this outburst of voluntarism. A fortnight after the press conference, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal delivered his first policy speech to MPs—dramatically devoid of any family policy. His government has no ministry or sub-ministry for the family.
This is not a new phenomenon. Emmanuel Macron began his first term in office in 2017 by limiting his family policy to the issue of medically assisted procreation for homosexual couples. A few months ago, the Right pointed out the glaring failure to take into account the birth rate in the debates on pension reform, even though the French edifice, based on a pay-as-you-go pension system, can only hold together with a dynamic birth rate.
In 1946, family-oriented programmes accounted for 40% of social security expenditure and were financed to the tune of 16.5% by employers’ contributions on salaries. Governments believed that it was in their interest to support families for demographic reasons—an essential condition for the generosity of the welfare state. This strategy was gradually abandoned. The demographic issue, conceived as an issue of prosperity and power, has disappeared from public debate. As a result, family-oriented programmes now account for just 7% of social security expenditure.
Emmanuel Macron is coming in at the end of a trend that began long before him—notably under Lionel Jospin’s socialist ministry in the 2000s—and is only accentuating it dramatically. The government does not understand families and does not know how to propose appropriate solutions, making it impossible for the time being to overcome the crisis of confidence among families, which is the real explanation for the systemic decline in the French birth rate, as deplored by UNAF (for Union Nationale des Associations Familiales, or National Union of Family Associations).
As an example, the announced reform of parental leave is emblematic of the mismatch between the policies proposed by Emmanuel Macron’s teams and the needs of families. While the exact content of the reform has yet to be defined, the broad outlines of the project are worrying potential beneficiary families. At present, parents can benefit from what is known as ‘parental leave,’ which offers one of the two parents—usually, the mother, since less than 1% of fathers make use of it—the opportunity to put their professional activity on hold for two years, in exchange for a symbolic allowance of €429 per month. Deeming it too long and insufficiently remunerated, Emmanuel Macron wants to replace it with ‘birth leave,’ lasting six months, with compensation similar to that which already exists for maternity leave: a portion guaranteed by social security and a portion topped up by the employer to 100% of salary. Birth leave could be taken by either the father or the mother or both parents.
Apparently attractive on paper, this new leave actually creates more problems than it solves: mothers who wish to look after their child beyond six months will no longer have the option of doing so, and there are no plans to improve childcare solutions once the six-month period has elapsed. What’s more, for women, existing maternity leave will be included in this period, which will ultimately only extend the time they can spend with their child by a few weeks. Early childhood experts recommend a period of nine months for such leave, to ensure that it is truly beneficial to the child, but this is not the direction in which the government seems to be going.
The logic behind the reform is as follows: the government remains obsessed with the idea that work is the primary place for women to fulfil their potential, and that they should be able to return to work as soon as possible, to avoid, it is thought, ‘fractures’ in the world of work. The notion of a mother’s free choice and the development of part-time work are totally absent from this productivist vision, which believes—more or less—that parents who spend time looking after their children are socially useless.
The best proof of the government’s inability to conceive of a genuine family policy can be seen in certain measures taken at the very moment when the catastrophic birth rate figures are being published, and when a pro-natalist ambition devoid of concrete and realistic means is being displayed: the inclusion of abortion in the constitution, or an increase in the bonus paid to doctors performing abortions. Yet, there is a political front to be opened up on the subject of the 230,000 births the country misses every year because of abortion, which is very often carried out for financial reasons, as a recent ECLJ study proves, citing research by the Guttmacher Institute: 75% of women who have had an abortion say they were forced into it by social or economic constraints. Social determinism is at play here, but few dare tackle the issue of abortion from this angle, including and especially on the Left, which usually sees itself as the champion of those suffering social inequality and poverty. Yet the stakes are high. In its study, the ECLJ points out that “if abortion were to fall by 50% in France, the fertility rate would rise back above the two children per woman mark.”
More fundamentally, France’s lack of a fruitful family policy is perhaps to be found in the relationship between the country’s leaders and the family. There was a time when there were responsible fathers at the head of the country. But the weakening of family ties in society over the years has been echoed in the families of successive presidents. Nicolas Sarkozy was married three times, with children in each union. François Hollande never married the mother of his four children, and the Élysée Palace has seen a succession of two more or less unofficial—or official, as the case may be—of his mistresses. As for Emmanuel Macron, his union with Brigitte Macron, which has fuelled the wildest rumours, was inherently sterile from the outset. The new Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, proudly evoked his homosexuality during his general policy speech on January 30th. As a result, the notion of family can only have a diffuse and abstract meaning for them and tends to be limited to dubious accounting balances. Policymakers find themselves talking about the family in a way that is increasingly disconnected from the realities of parents and their expectations.
Today, there is a significant gap between the actual number of children in French families and the desired number. Parents are reluctant to expand their families because, especially in big cities, they have difficulty finding suitable accommodation, are penalised when they want to change cars, are unable to provide childcare, and dread the day when they have to go to a school full of violence where they will learn nothing. These terribly concrete and simple problems are completely beyond the grasp of government officials.
In the autumn of 2022, Raymond Debord, a doctor in the human sciences coming from the Left, published a remarkable essay, Faut-il en finir avec la famille? (Is it time to do away with the family?) In it, he analysed the fundamental mistrust of the French political sphere towards the family, which, despite everything, remains a safe haven favoured by the French. The political and media sphere’s distrust of the family has become a necessary marker of its ‘progressivism.’ “The elite bloc has changed paradigm: economic liberalism and social liberalism have merged in hostility to intermediary bodies and the apology of individualism,” explains the researcher, noting that the family is bearing the brunt of this state of mind.
The riots in June 2023 following the death of young Nahel brought the family back into the spotlight, perceived as an unavoidable social necessity if not encouraged. A few inspired civil servants came up with the idea of launching ‘parenting workshops,’ or had one or two fleeting flashes of insight into the role of the father’s authority. But these temporary revelations have not fundamentally changed the paradigm of the ruling elites, who still refuse to see the family as an added value and not as a raw social fact.
Macron’s speech has made a timid start towards awareness of the demographic challenge, but the only remedy that progressives dream of to solve it is still lurking in ambush: immigration.
This imagined remedy remains an illusion on several levels. First, because demographic studies, as Raymond Debord pointed out, show that immigrants end up adopting the host country’s behaviour in terms of birth rates, so we shouldn’t count on them to magically solve everything. Second, because mass immigration generates the well-known problems of the juxtaposition of communities and the dilution of the native culture. Finally, choosing immigration to limit the problems of labour market and social security contributions will not solve the human problem of emotional solidarity and the transmission of a nation’s material and symbolic heritage. An immigrant employed by a service agency may come to clean the house of an elderly person, but he will not witness his last breath or his memories. Only the family is capable of doing that, and that’s what makes it irreplaceable. Unfortunately, the French political class is not yet aware of its invaluable role.