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Even France knows it has a baby problem

Emmanuel Macron is getting serious about addressing his country’s low birthrate


French President Emmanuel Macron visits the Rouen hospital in Normandy on April 5, 2018. Associated Press/Photo by Christophe Ena

Even France knows it has a baby problem
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Americans are often quick to assume that certain presuppositions about family are “fundamentalist.” Big families, and young parents, seem like something that only right-wing Christians would prioritize, or so the cultural zeitgeist would have us believe. But in fact world leaders, particularly those who govern important Western democracies, are increasingly worried about the declines in fertility and population in their counties. France’s Emmanuel Macron, hardly a fundamentalist Christian, has announced that his government would intervene to address France’s fast-falling birthrate.

Macron is not the first European head of state to worry publicly about his country’s birth rates and population. Germany’s government published a report that gave a dim forecast for Germany’s social and economic health if the population continued to decline and the number of potential taxpayers decreased. European nations maintain robust welfare states that rely on taxpayers to support them. Shrinking numbers of children and families mean fewer and fewer people to pay for French and German entitlements.

Concerns over entitlements are an understandable European concern, but what makes Macron’s potential policies interesting and even commendable is that they wed concerns over liberal freedoms to France’s historic Gaullist and Bonapartist commitment to make healthy French families. France has never had American-style libertarianism, so that may seem heavy-handed to American liberals. Macron’s plan proposes government sponsored sex education and education about so-called reproductive health. American evangelicals might understandably flinch at both provisions, but Macron is providing information through the state because he wants more children carried to term by women, and he wants French families started earlier than has been the norm in the early 21st century.

Evangelical qualms about sex education are understandable given our republic’s notoriously loose approach to and often unseemly celebration of contraception, but it is worth noting that contraception was not legal in France until 1967, and despite the government’s subsidization of birth control, France’s decline in fertility is due much more to a lack of family formation than a long history of contraception use. France plans to offer fertility checks to citizens between 18 and 25, an indication that Macron is serious about encouraging French men and women to start families at a younger age. In 2013 the average age of a French man at his first marriage was 33, and it’s only gone up since then. The average age of a first-time mother in France was 29 in 2020.

Macron is not only trying to incentivize younger families, he is also committing the government to help them financially.

Macron is not only trying to incentivize younger families, he is also committing the government to help them financially. Another provision of Macron’s plan is government financial support for families. Various tax breaks and incentives are offered to families throughout Europe, and Macron’s plan is not particularly innovative in that regard.

The most interesting aspect of Macron’s plan, at least for American evangelicals, is what it does not do. The French president denounced surrogate pregnancy as “not compatible with the dignity of women.” Surrogacy, he said, turned women’s bodies “into commodities.” In the United States, even evangelicals—proud as they are of their commitment to families—cannot find the political will to prohibit surrogacy. In the spring of 2024 the Alabama Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively halted surrogacy via IVF in the state, and Republican lawmakers quickly moved to keep the procedure legal in a state with one of the country’s highest populations of self-identified evangelicals.

The president of France is not shy about his government’s disdain for surrogacy. He also isn’t shy about using the state to force men to take fatherhood seriously. At present, there is little will in the United States to ensure that men who father children take parenting their children seriously; there is even less political will to enact a culture-wide ethic of chastity. French men are not known for sexual abstinence, so it is understandable then that President Macron has at least decided to force men to be fathers to the children they sire. He has hinted at a “duty to visit” that would force fathers to spend time with their children.

None of these policies is guaranteed to work, and American evangelicals might rightly question whether state-sponsored sex education will actually lead to healthy family formation, or if it is even healthy for children to spend state-mandated time with indifferent fathers. What is undeniable, though, is that Emmanuel Macron is taking family and population policy seriously in a way that few conservative politicians in the United States are willing to do so. In 2024, American birthrates fell to a record low, and there is nothing keeping the United States from going down a similar path as France and the rest of Western Europe. Serious family policy, implemented now, might save Americans from more drastic policy later.


Miles Smith

Miles Smith is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. His area of interest is the intellectual and religious history of the 19th-century United States and the Atlantic World.

@IVMiles


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