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May 20, 2005

French baby boom?

I noticed a news report this week that the population of France was predicted to rise from 60 million to 75 million by 2050. As I found this surprising, I tried to find out more.

For those who can read French, the fullest report seems to be here.

For the benefit of others, the key points are as follows.

The population of France is currently just over 60 million. The French authorities have previously forecast that it would rise to 64 million by 2050. But using new population data from local registration they now think this is an underestimate. A French Government Minister has talked of 75 million, but this is not an official estimate. Some demographers think it is too high, and 70 million is more plausible.

The rising trend is attributed to three main factors:

- the birth rate is higher than expected

- life expectancy is continuing to increase

- net immigration is continuing and is also higher than expected.

Some readers will suspect that immigration is the main factor, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Net annual immigration is running at about 100,000, which if it continues for 45 years (and assuming the immigrants reproduce themselves) would only account for 4.5 million. Moreover, net immigration of 50,000 a year had already been allowed for in population forecasts, so the higher observed rate only accounts for about 2.25 million of the increase in the estimate. Incidentally, it is said that immigration from Britain is an important element in the increase. There has certainly been a stream of people moving from Britain to rural France, escaping high house prices, yobs, and the general deterioration of the physical and social environment. There is hardly a middle-class Englishman who doesn’t dream of boules, brie and baguettes in the sunshine. But most of the British migrants are retired or ‘downshifting’.

The most interesting factor is the increase in the birth rate. The ‘indice conjoncturel de fécondité’, which seems to be equivalent to the Total Fertility Rate, has increased from 1.78 in 1998 to 1.92 in 2004. Higher birth rates among immigrants only account for a small part of this. The main factor seems to be that women who have postponed childbearing into their 30s are now ‘bearing fruit’. I pointed out some time ago (here) that changing patterns of conception made TFRs unreliable.

There is some uncertainty how far the birth rate will increase. The ‘optimists’ think it will reach a TFR of 2.1, which is about sufficient for replacement, while others are more cautious. This is the reason for the differing forecasts.

One must remember that in France the birth rate has traditionally been a matter of national pride and concern. Governments have always been ‘pro-natalist’, against the background that since 1800 French population grew much more slowly than that of Britain and Germany. French commentators are now gleeful that if the rising French trend continues, while in Germany the birth rate stays low, the population of France will be bigger than that of Germany by 2050. This is premature, as trends cannot be reliably forecast that far ahead, and an improvement in the German economy could draw in large immigration from eastern Europe.

For comparison, the population of the UK is also just over 60 million and is officially forecast to rise to 65 million by 2050. But at current rates of net immigration to the UK this level would be reached by 2030. Much of the recent migration is from Eastern Europe, especially Poland, and is proving generally popular, as the migrants are polite, hard-working, and well-behaved. Let’s hope they don’t send their children to British schools and spoil all that!

As in France, the birth rate is also increasing in Britain. According to the Office for National Statistics, ‘if the provisional 2004 patterns of fertility were to remain unchanged, as represented by the total fertility rate (TFR), then an average of 1.79 children would be born per woman. This is the highest rate since 1992 (1.80) and continues the gradual increase from a low point in 2001 when the TFR was 1.63’.

I don’t personally welcome an increase in the population of England, which is already over-populated. France, on the other hand, is relatively lightly populated, and could easily accommodate an increase to 70 million or so.

Posted by David B at 06:40 AM