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Walker's World: French births soar

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Martin Walker
Washington, April 30, 2008
The news that France has overtaken Ireland to boast the highest birthrate in Europe is intriguing for three different reasons.

The first is that for a Europe that is worried about too few children being born to support the fast-growing numbers of elderly retirees, it suggests that public policy can make a difference. France now pays any mother with a third child about $1,200 in child support, along with massive discounts on train and public transport and subsidized day care. These incentives seem to work.

The second development to note is that INED, France's National Institute of Demographic Studies, has done some detailed research and concluded that France's immigrant population is responsible for only 5 percent of the rise in the birthrate and that France's population would be rising anyway even without the immigrant population.

That is important in a country where the number of immigrants from traditionally Muslim countries and their French-born children and grandchildren is now reckoned to be more than 6 million from a total population of 60.7 million. The anti-immigration Front National Party has claimed the rise in births came from Muslims, who were thus on track to become an eventual majority, and this appears not to be the case.

In fact in France, like everywhere else in Europe, the birthrate among immigrant mothers drops quickly toward the local norm in less than two generations. The measure most commonly used in international statistics is the Total Fertility Rate, which seeks to measure the number of children born to the average woman in her fertile years. (The formal definition of TFR is the average number of children a woman would have during her reproductive lifetime if current age-specific fertility rates remained constant over her reproductive life.)

In France, the TFR has risen from 1.66 in 1993 to 2.0 in 2003 and 2.1 last year. If maintained, that means the population of France will rise from 60.7 million today to 70 million sometime before 2050.

The United Nations' own projections demonstrate the impact of TFR. If the global rate falls to 2.1, the level of a stable population, then by 2050 the world population will be 11 billion and will remain stable.

If the global TFR falls to 1.6 (about Europe's level today), then the world population in 2050 will be 8 billion and falling. But if the global TFR rate remains at 2.6 (about where it is today) then the world population in 2050 will be 27 billion (four times more than today) and rising.

The birthrates of Muslim women in Europe have been falling significantly for some time. In the Netherlands, for example, the TFR among Dutch-born women rose between 1990 and 2005 from 1.6 to 1.7. In the same period for Moroccan-born women in Holland it fell from 4.9 to 2.9, and for Turkish-born women in Holland from 3.2 to 1.9.

In Austria, the TFR of Muslim women fell from 3.1 to 2.3 from 1981 to 2001. In 1970 Turkish-born women in Germany had on average two children more than German-born women. By 1996 the difference had fallen to one child and has now dropped to 0.5. These sharp falls reflect important cultural shifts, which include the impact of universal female education, rising living standards, the effect of local cultural norms and availability of contraception.

The third item of real interest is that France is not alone. Birthrates are also rising in the Netherlands, Britain, Sweden and Germany.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's minister for the family, announced in February that the country's birthrate had just hit a 17-year high. In Britain, the number of births has risen for the fifth year in a row, and more children were born last year than in any year since 1980. Britain's National Health Service has started an emergency recruitment drive to hire more midwives, tempting early retirees from the profession back to work with a cash bonus of $6,000. Sweden's total fertility rate jumped by 8 percent in 2004, from 1.54 to 1.66, and that higher level has been sustained.

A trend seems to be emerging under which birthrates are falling sharply in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, while they have started to rise again in Europe. The global trend is down, very sharply down. In all, 80 countries around the world, comprising almost half the Earth's population, are now experiencing a birthrate that is below replacement.

Trends in demography are dangerous; nobody can predict when they stop. But the idea that Europeans were becoming an endangered species looks a lot less likely. The danger is not over. Bulgaria, for example, is experiencing a TFR of 1.14, the lowest ever recorded in a modern nation in peacetime. If that rate is maintained, today's 7.7 million Bulgarians will be down below 1 million by the end of this century.

Birthrates are falling almost everywhere. With a few exceptions like Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, Haiti and Guatemala, the countries still experiencing strong population growth are all in sub-Saharan Africa. Depending on its birthrate, the current 750 million are likely to become between 1.5 billion and 3 billion by the end of this century. And if European, Latin American and Arab birthrates continue to decline, then Islam as well as Christianity will be a predominantly African religion, with some outposts in Europe.

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