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The French disconnection

France’s attempts to raise birth rates won’t work, and we may be going down the same road


French President Emmanuel Macron prepares for a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Jan. 18. Associated Press/Photo by Thomas Padilla

The French disconnection
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As conservatives warily eye a future cultural and political environment that is likely to be increasingly hostile to our priorities, we can gain some sense of what to expect by looking across the pond to western Europe. With an Overton window always a bit to the left of America’s on most issues, British and French politics give us some clue of what the range of political possibilities may look like here a few years hence. It’s instructive then to consider the recent hullabaloo that greeted France’s President Emmanuel Macron when he announced a raft of proposals to strengthen France’s civic fabric.

The new policies included measures to introduce uniforms and teach the national anthem at public schools, as well as unspecified proposals to limit children’s screen time. By far the most controversial, however, was a promise to combat France’s plummeting birth rate, which in 2023 fell to historic lows. After spending most of the early 2000s just below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman (extremely high by European standards), it has fallen precipitously in recent years to 1.86, endangering not only France’s economic vitality but the viability of its social security programs. Macron thus proposed fresh investment in fertility treatments as well as more generous publicly-funded parental leave.

It is hard to see why a concern with preserving the national population—surely the single most important priority for any government—should be considered controversial. If anything, one might say that conservatives had the most reason to complain. After all, state-funded parental leave is a big-government solution if there ever was one, and “fertility treatments” means more state funding for progressive biotechnologies like IVF that dehumanize procreation. Macron, however, was widely lambasted for such a “reactionary” program, with one leading women’s rights campaigner tweeting “Leave our uteruses alone.” Another likened the proposal to the dystopian “Handmaid’s Tale.”

Such responses demonstrate that when it comes to birth rates, the biggest obstacle facing developed countries is not economic headwinds, despite the many polls purportedly showing that many couples would be happy to have more children if the government just made it cheaper for them to do so. (Lower average incomes were not an obstacle to child-bearing in our grandparents’ generation!) Nor is medical infertility the primary obstacle, despite the worrying rise in infertility issues among both men and women.

Once a society decisively separates sex from reproduction, the latter comes to be seen as an optional extra to be weighed on its own merits.

The latest numbers suggest that in the United States, for instance, around 1 in 8 couples struggles with some form of medical infertility—a non-trivial number, to be sure, but not enough to cause the national birth rate to crater. Moreover, many of these cases are simply the result of most couples waiting until after 35 to try and have children—which itself is the symptom of a larger issue.

This larger issue, of course, is that once a society decisively separates sex from reproduction, the latter comes to be seen as an optional extra to be weighed on its own merits. And once society identifies success with wealth and happiness with consumption, the decision of whether or not to have a child always feels like one better postponed just a little bit longer. This explains why so many poll respondents can say they’d “like to have more children” but birth rates keep going down. Meanwhile, a rising number of men and women feel no desire—and no social pressure—to sacrifice time and convenience to the task of bearing and raising children.

Viewed from this standpoint, of course, it is evident that even the “conservative” agenda announced by Macron remains essentially progressive in its assumptions, making no effort to change underlying cultural norms surrounding sexuality and childbearing. Indeed, the use of “fertility treatments” like IVF simply reinforce the separation of sex and reproduction, especially when the government provides them free of charge for lesbian couples and single women. Since Macron also made headlines early this year for appointing France’s first-ever openly gay prime minister, Gabriel Attal, it is clear he has little interest in authentic social conservatism.

With conservatives in the United States rapidly making their peace with the sexual revolution, it seems likely that Macron’s brand of “conservatism” is likely to become in many ways par for the course here as well. And as America’s birth rates are sagging too, we can accept similar political battles to heat up here as well, with the right seeking to water down the culture of death with “fertility treatments” and tax credits, while the left finds the purpose of life in the celebration of childlessness.


Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.


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