The birth rate in France

The birth rate in France

  • Fertility by Emile Zola.

    TOURNON Raymond (1870 - 1919)

  • The greatest danger threatening France is the decrease in her birth rate.


Fertility by Emile Zola.

© Contemporary Collections

The greatest danger threatening France is the decrease in her birth rate.

© Contemporary Collections

Publication date: January 2006

Historical context

From the end of the 18th centurye century, France is illustrated by an early decline in birth rates, which is a unique feature of its demography. The birth rate rose from 31.2 ‰ between 1816 and 1830 to 26.3 ‰ under the Second Empire to reach 19.6 ‰ in 1911. Thus between 1851 and 1911, while the German and British populations respectively increased by 57.8% and 42.8%, the French population only increases by 9%! After the defeat of 1870, this phenomenon, which anti-malthusians such as Jacques Bertillon, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu and Arsène Dumont attributed to the lack of French vitality in the face of German dynamism, became a political issue. Anti-Malthusian propaganda is resuming its voice but to a large extent reconnects with themes inherited from the pre-war period.

Image Analysis

The happy family model

The poster, dating from before 1914, announces for advertising purposes the forthcoming publication of Emile Zola's novel Fertility in the newspaper Dawn, of radical obedience. Written in 1885 and published in 1899, this work constitutes the first volume of his “Four Gospels”. At the heart, if not the center of this illustration, a mother breastfeeding her child. To his right, set back, the guardian figure of the husband, and around, the family, admittedly still small on the poster, but Marianne, the heroine of Fertility, will end his life surrounded by his hundred and three descendants. The ripe wheat (in the village called Chantebled) leaves one to imagine the prosperity or the success of this happy family because of its large number, from a working class background (as evidenced by the tools, the basket or the costumes). In a simple and serene atmosphere - children play and pick flowers.

The 1924 poster comes from the National Alliance for the Growth of the French Population, created in 1896 and recognized as being of public utility in 1913. In its form, it is inspired by educational panels intended for schools, such as This is shown by maxims (which make her eminently talkative) and figures illustrated with figures, combining moral discourse and claimed scientificity. It calls for ethics, duty and personal well-being to more explicitly disseminate the same message as before the war and recalls the various natalist measures adopted by the state. She too praises the joys of a large family, a happiness to which she contrasts the distress of a lonely old man. The old man's hunched back contrasts with the dynamism that the image of the family draws from its diagonal, as, moreover, with that created by the elevation of the child in the central vignette.


Political differences and cultural convergences

These posters, which are all part of the anti-Malthusian movement, nonetheless present some undeniable differences. The brochure and the 1924 poster put at the heart of their subject (or their design) threatened France and these remedies that are, jointly, the army and the birth rate. This discourse on war and peace or the defense of "the race and its seed" is, of course, absent from Zola's novel and from the poster that illustrates it. Its hero, Mathieu Froment, is a peasant whose work (this other "gospel" of Zola) is alone exalted. At least these different illustrations reveal the same view of the family, its values ​​and the division of roles within it. The work (or the fight) falls everywhere on men, fathers and sons. It is up to women (mothers and daughters) to give birth to children, to breastfeed them and to feed the family (as shown by the various objects: basket, saucepan, soup tureen). For the happiness and prosperity of all. It is clear that this intense propaganda had almost zero effects on the sexual practices of the French and the birth rate.

  • demography
  • family
  • publicity
  • campaign
  • tax


André ARMENGAUD The French and MalthusParis, PUF, 1976. Pierre CHAUNU, Gérard-François DUMONT, Jean LEGRAND and Alfred SAUVY Wrinkled France: the conditions for renewal Paris, Hachette, coll. “Pluriel”, 1979.Jacques DUPAQUIER (dir.) History of the French population, volume III “From 1789 to 1914” Paris, PUF, 1988.Alfred SAUVY La Vieillesse des nationsParis, Gallimard, coll. "& Nbps; Tel & nbps;", 2000.Emile ZOLALes Quatre Evangiles.FéconditéParis, Fasquelle, 1899, reed.L'Harmattan, 1994.

To cite this article

Danielle TARTAKOWSKY, "Low birth rate in France"