The population of France is forecast to match that of Germany – currently the largest in Western Europe – by 2055, reports Carine Fourteau of Mediapart.
In a study published on 29 March, the French National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED) examined the reasons behind this latest development in what has been a long history of reversing demographic trends between the two countries.
It finds that while immigration has played a minor role in the increase of the population in France, it represents a vital element for countering the continued ageing and decrease of the population in Germany.
France’s demographic surge is due above all to a comparatively high rate of births, and which is significantly more than the number of deaths. In 2010, when the French population rose by 0.53% to reach 63.4 million, there were 802,000 babies born in France, while there were 540,000 deaths. During the same year, the net migration figure was 75,000 (i.e. there were 75,000 more people arrived in the country than the number of those who left) representing a fifth of the overall rise in the population.
In Germany, however, the situation is the exact opposite. In 2010, the German population totaled 81.4 million, representing a year-on-year fall of 0.06%. That drop would have reached 0.22% without the net influx of 130,000 immigrants during 2010.
According to the United Nations’ medium variant projections, the French population will total the same as Germany’s by 2055. This is based on the assumption of a continuing rise in fertility rates in France and Germany (reaching in 2055 an average 1.92 children per woman in Germany and 2.06 children per woman in France), that life expectancy will continue to rise (to reach 85.5 years in Germany, and 86.5 years in France) and that immigration will represent a net influx of 1 in 1,000 people.
"The positions of the two countries in terms of population growth and ageing have already been reversed," noted INED research director Gilles Pison who led the study. "While France was seen as an ageing nation threatened with demographic decline before the Second World War, this is now the image of Germany. These trend reversals are the consequence of changes in fertility and family formation that have occurred in both countries, but at different times."
A history of demographic ping-pong
Pison believes that the significantly higher birth rate in France is explained by longstanding public policies encouraging couples to have children, with financial benefits and childcare structures to help with raising a family, and which have been supported across the political divide.
The introduction of similar policies in Germany is comparatively recent, and while public spending on such policies is about the same in both countries, the childcare structure in Germany is less comprehensive than in France.
"In France, pro-family measures have long been advocated by governments of all political colours, while in Germany the memory of Nazi pronatalist zeal held back such policies for many years before they were finally implemented," commented Pison.
In 1800, France had a population of 30 million, twice that of Germany when calculating those who then lived within what are its current borders. However, over the following 150 years, the situation was reversed. "In the mid-18th century, women in both countries had 5 or 6 children on average," noted Pison in the study.
"But by the end of the century, the practice of birth control was spreading in France, and fertility fell from 5.4 children per women in the 1750s to 4.4 in the 1800s and 3.4 in the 1850s. In Germany, on the other hand, it was not until the late 19th century that German women, in turn, started to limit their family size. This timing differential is often attributed to the early spread of Enlightenment ideas across France, or to the lifting of religious constraints."
"One consequence of the early fertility decline was slower French population growth in the 19th century compared with its European neighbours, and early population ageing … The crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was attributed to the superiority of the Prussian education system, but also to the demographic decline of France which was believed to have lost its triumphant vigour of the Napoleonic First Empire. Similar reasons were given to explain France's vulnerability in the face of its German enemy at the start of the First World War. These ideas served to justify the introduction of pronatalist policies at the end of the 19th century."
World War II marks trend reversal
By 1939, Germany’s population had reached 60 million, compared to 41 million in France. “German growth was due to a surplus of births over deaths, with a birth rate that remained consistently above the death rate throughout the nineteenth and early 20th centuries (discounting war years),” observed Pison.
“By contrast, the curves of births and deaths in France remained very close over this same period, and the resulting low level of natural growth was even cancelled out by the losses of the 1914-1918 war. It was only thanks to immigration that the population did not totally stagnate between 1900 and 1939."
Beginning at the end of the 19th century, France saw a strong influx of immigrants, rising notably in the years immediately after World War I. "Germany, on the other hand, far from being a country of immigration, saw an exodus of it inhabitants towards the New World," Pison underlined. "Without this emigration, its population would have increased even further.
The post-World War II baby boom ended in both countries in the 1960s. The fertility rate dropped to an average of two children per woman in Germany in 1970, and the same figure was recorded in France by 1974. By the 1990s, this had dropped to an average 1.3 children per woman in Germany and 1.7 children per woman in France.
In France, however, a trend among women to have children at a later age saw the fertility rate return to an average two children per woman beginning in the last decade. In Germany, the fertility rate rose far slower, to reach just 1.4 children per woman by 2010.
The INED study noted that since 1945 the average difference in the fertility rates between the two countries has remained ‘half a child’ less for German women. “This gap may seem small, but in demography it is substantial, especially if it persists for decades,” said the study.
“If fertility remains low, a constant inflow of migrants will be needed to offset the surplus of deaths over births and to maintain the German population at its current level. Unless, that is, Germany resigns itself to the prospect of steady population decline,” it concluded.