Population, the state, and national grandeur

Demography as political science in modern France

by Paul-André Rosental (Author)
©2018 Monographs XII, 376 Pages


Only in France is demography essentially the population science: it is taught at school, newspapers feature the evolution of fertility rates in their headlines and the subject sparks ideological debates in the media. How did demography become a national identity issue?
The French exception is attributable to a political history that reached fulcrums during the Second World War under the racist Vichy regime and then after the Liberation, with the development of population policies and the creation of the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED). The book is the first to retrace its controversial genesis and analyze its ramifications for the following decades. It shows how theories, institutions and demographic policies developed simultaneously in France. Its reflection on the links between ideologies, science and the state offers a model that could be applied to the history of many other scientific disciplines.
Paul-André Rosental’s indispensable study examines the emergence of demography as an autonomous discipline and its association with the state in mid-twentieth-century France. Demography’s success in the immediate post-war years came in part from its dual concern with both "science" and "action," which allowed policy makers to claim both knowledge and expertise in addressing social problems. Rosental’s measured tone hides a provocative argument that should serve as both a model and a foil for others working in the history of the human sciences.
Joshua Cole, University of Michigan.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Preface by Philip Nord
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Glory or contingencies: the 1939 High Committee and the establishment of a body for population
  • An institutional precedent?
  • The innovation challenge
  • Chapter 2: The “Phony War” and demographic police (1939-1940)
  • Support for the Family Code
  • Demographic propaganda
  • From prevention to informants: the fight against social scourges
  • The anti-abortion hunt
  • Demographic studies
  • Chapter 3: Biology, political economy and moralism. The Vichy regime (1940-1944)
  • Family or Population?
  • Vichy and the institutions responsible for family
  • Population at the “Carrel Foundation”
  • Chapter 4: Population and political construction of a new society: the government of Algiers and the Liberation period (1943-1945)
  • Family or social policy? Two uses of population
  • The institutional flowering of April 1945: State proactivity or inability to choose?
  • The new population hierarchs
  • Chapter 5: Demographic pressure and institutional creations: The hunt for “good migrants”
  • Georges Mauco, a hardliner for the high committee on Population and Family
  • The psychology of people as a public policy tool
  • An epilogue? A rational immigration and labour policy
  • Chapter 6: An Institute for Alfred Sauvy?
  • Statistics and influence
  • In the service of Vichy and Algiers
  • The INED breakthrough
  • An imported identity
  • Chapter 7: The Creation of a National Institute of Demography
  • The Institution negotiates its role
  • The development of a field of research
  • The constraints on scientific action
  • Chapter 8: The birth of the world of research
  • A demographic intelligence body
  • The diffusion of a new discipline
  • Chapter 9: The second birth of demography. A transatlantic history
  • From population to demography
  • A founder by default: the Lotka case
  • Chapter 10: The novelty of an old genre. Louis Henry and the founding of Historical Demography
  • The baby boom, a costly enigma
  • Family micro-history and demographic macro-changes
  • The uses of historical demography for public action
  • Conclusion
  • Chronology of the main legal decisions and events quoted
  • References
  • Archival sources
  • Bibliography
  • A bibliographic note and update on works published since the original edition

← XII | 1 →


ANNational Archives (Archives Nationales)
CACCentre for Contemporary Archives (Centre des Archives contemporaines)
CNENational Economic Council (Conseil national économique)
CNRSNational Centre for Scientific Research (Centre national de la recherche scientifique)
CNRSANational Centre for Applied Scientific Research (Centre national de la recherche scientifique appliquée)
CEPECentre for Foreign Policy Studies (Centre d’études de la politique étrangère)
CFLNFrench Committee of National Liberation (Comité français de la Libération nationale)
CGTGeneral Workers’ Confederation (Confédération générale du Travail)
ENANational School of Administration (École nationale d’Administration)
FFEPHFrench Foundation for the Study of Human Problems (Fondation française pour l’étude des problèmes humains, “Carrel Foundation”)
HCPHigh Committee on Population (Haut Comité de la Population)
HCPFHigh Committee on Population and Family (Haut Comité consultatif de la Population et de la Famille)
IFOPFrench institute on public opinion (Institut français d’opinion publique)
INEDNational Institute for Demographic Studies (Institut national d’études démographiques)
INSEENational Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques)
INSERMNational Institute for Health and Medical Research (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) ← 1 | 2 →
ISUPParis University Institute of Statistics (Institut de statistique de l’Université de Paris)
IUSIPPInternational Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems
IUSSPInternational Union for the Scientific Study of Population
MSPPMinistry of Public Health and Population (Ministère de la Santé publique et de la Population)
OJOfficial Journal (Journal Officiel)1
Sciences PoFree School of Political Science (École libre des Sciences politiques) until 1945; and then Paris University Institute of political studies (Institut d’études politiques de l’université de Paris)
SGFGeneral Statistics of France (Statistique générale de la France)
SNSNational Statistical Service (Service National de Statistique)
UNUnited Nations
UNAFNational Union of Family Associations (Union Nationale des Associations Familiales)

1 The Official Journal is the periodical in which the legislation and regulations of the French Republic are published. In this book it will be abbreviated as “OJ”. The date that follows indicates when the orders became official.

← 2 | 3 →


Philip Nord Princeton University

I took a seminar in graduate school on the History of Modern France, and Philippe Ariès’s Histoire des populations françaises figured on the list of readings. This was the early 1970s, not long after the book’s 1971 publication. A few years later, I was in France, researching a dissertation on a late nineteenth-century subject and stumbled upon an organization, l’Alliance nationale pour l’accroissement de la population française [National Alliance for French Population Growth], founded in 1896 by the doctor turned statistician, Jacques Bertillon. The wave of feminist scholarship that swept over the field of French history in the decade following made it clear that French policy-makers in the first half of the twentieth century had worried about a stagnating birth rate and, prompted by such worries, enacted laws to punish abortion and obstruct women’s access to birth control. In 1992, I read a manuscript version of Susan Pedersen’s soon-to-be-published classic, Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914-1945. In it, she demonstrated, among other things, how France’s persistent preoccupation with natality shaped its welfare-state institutions, designed with the protection of motherhood and family in mind. I came upon Michel Foucault’s celebrated lectures on governmentality later in a volume titled The Foucault Effect (1991). Modern states look on population as a font of power, a resource to be managed and exploited for the state’s greater glory: Foucault’s argument was an interesting one, and by now, I was not at all surprised that a Frenchman had been the one to make it.

All the evidence pointed to one and the same conclusion. Birth rates, the family, population management—demography in a word— mattered in France to a degree they did not elsewhere. The French indeed had pioneered in the field, but that still left a major question unanswered. How had the field itself come into existence? ← 3 | 4 →

This is the question that Paul-André Rosental’s book addresses, and the answer he proposes is not at all routine but one full of illuminating surprises. For starters, it was not within the groves of academe that the discipline first began to develop. France has a reputation as a society poor in associational life, and yet it was voluntary bodies like the Alliance nationale pour l’accroissement de la population française (later the Alliance nationale contre la dépopulation) that took the lead in stoking public interest in the nation’s population issues. The Alliance was seconded by an array of pro-family associations, many of them Catholic in orientation. In the last years of the Third Republic, as France readied itself for the Second World War, policy-makers recognized the need to beef up birth rates in the belief that a more populous nation made for a stronger one. To that end, pro-natalist technocrats, like Michel Debré and Alfred Sauvy, were recruited into the government, and they struck up a partnership with civil-society groups, a collaboration whose raison d’être lay in devising state measures to promote procreation. It’s often thought that the Third Republic in its final phase was mired in policy paralysis, but that wasn’t the case when it came to the population question.

Then came another set of surprises. The state’s burgeoning interest in natality soon took institutional form as a state-funded think tank. That extra step, however, was not taken by the Republic but by Vichy. Alexis Carrel, a Nobel-winning scientist, originated the idea. He rustled up state backing for the enterprise and then recruited a raft of statisticians, physicians, and pro-natalist experts into its service. The Fondation Carrel, as the new institution came to be known, labored in furtherance of the regime’s pro-family agenda, but it also imagined itself a practical endeavor, which mobilized numbers and machines, statistics and calculators, to impart a scientific gloss to its populationist policy proposals. Just as remarkable, the Fondation Carrel did not disappear at the Liberation. Population policy mattered to postwar policy-makers. A France under reconstruction needed immigrant labor, but what kind of immigrant was most productive; there were glimmerings that the nation’s birth rate, so long sluggish, was now pushing upward, but was it possible to prove France was in the throes of a baby boom? Carrel died at the Liberation, but his institution, so useful to the state in helping to resolve questions like these, did not. It was reborn under a new name, the Institut national d’études démographiques, and its fortunes entrusted to a new director, the ever-durable Alfred Sauvy. INED, which remains in operation to the present day, spared no effort to demonstrate ← 4 | 5 → its intellectual bona fides, recruiting the best population scientists to its ranks, and as it did so, it also built its reputation on the world stage. The brand-new United Nations and its institutional redoubt in Paris, UNESCO, both took an interest in demographics—rates of birth, fecundity, death—and how they contributed, or didn’t, to a nation’s health, well-being, and future prospects. INED social scientists were on hand to provide information and counsel, helping to determine population policy in France but also beyond its borders.

And as demography institutionalized itself, it perfected its practices. The pro-natalist and pro-family activists of the 1930s had theorized about population growth, the so-called demographic transition, and related matters, but what they had to say was impressionistic with minimal statistical back-up. In the postwar era, however, demography mathematized. Calculating rates of one kind or another after all was its main stock in trade. The field now boasted all the attributes of a genuine science: a set of theories, a data base of statistics and correlations, and a range of procedures, mechanical and analytical, to crunch the numbers. State policy-makers who worried about birth rates and national strength took an interest in INED’s work, as did international civil servants worried about family-planning and its impact on development. But now, historians also began to pay attention, practitioners of historical demography influenced by the Annales school, of course, but also amateur historians like Ariès.

It seems a strange set of bedfellows, progressive-minded annalistes and Ariès, a one-time Action française militant and self-styled anarchist of the Right. But as Rosental’s book show us, it’s not so surprising as all that. Demography may have made itself into a social science in good standing, but its beginnings were more complicated, anchored as they were in a pro-natalist and familist milieu with national concerns that Ariès, for one, shared in. And just to round out the strange—or not-so-strange—bedfellows story, when Ariès died in February 1984, among those who paid homage to him was the theorist of governmentality, Michel Foucault.

The story Rosental has to tell is a very French one. It recounts the rise and institutionalization of a social science discipline which the French themselves did so much to create. It also says many original things about France itself: about the nation’s singular preoccupation with population issues and how that shaped its policy-making and politics in the twentieth century. This is an exceptional book. ← 5 | 6 →

← 6 | 7 →


Demography haunts the political culture of France. Its media are passionate about reporting on any increase or fall in births. The relevance of a population policy is discussed during elections. This is par for the course for the French, who do not always see that their sensitivity to demography generally amazes their visitors from abroad. The French exception can be explained by history; its emergence was marked by several phases. From the Second Empire through the end of the 19th century a pronatalist discourse took shape, making strong fertility a condition of national power. Then, beginning in 1896, a real lobby, the Alliance Nationale pour l’Accroissement de la Population française (National Alliance for French Population Growth) effectively disseminated this message to the elites. The latter became especially receptive in the 1930s, a decade plagued by political, economic and demographic depression, and growing fears about the rise of Nazism. The idea of a population and family policy then experienced a golden age of sorts: from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s there was broad consensus on the matter, at least among the main political parties. Finally, this policy was gradually challenged, and has progressively become the subject of fierce controversy. Critics and apologists of demography clashed in the 1990s, with their confrontations occasionally spilling over into the media.

This reversal resulted from significant social and cultural developments. On the one hand the promotion of individual interests and sensitivities at the expense of allegiance to a supposed collective, national efficiency, created difficulties for pronatalism, which in its extreme forms saw the individual as subordinate to the Nation1. On the other hand the critical inventory of the origins of modern knowledge inaugurated by Michel Foucault in the 1960s did not spare demographic science. The most radical critiques presented it as a science that had been inextricably linked to state control and to nationalism since its origin, which is usually placed in the 17th century2. Demography then allegedly incorporated into its core the ← 7 | 8 → despicable ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, including racism, colonialism, and eugenics.

France’s exceptionalism fuelled these critiques. One element was the existence, since October 1945, of a state institute devoted to demography: the Institut national d’études démographiques (INED – National Institute for Demographic Studies). The institute itself was a rarity in the world. Furthermore, its founding statutes originally endowed it with explicitly pronatalist and eugenic goals3. These perpetuated the objectives that had been set by the Vichy regime during the Second World War in collaboration with Nazi Germany, for the infamous Fondation Carrel (Carrel Foundation), a vast institute that combined biology and social sciences and to which INED was the official successor. Thus, at first glance, post-war French demography appeared to be a state science serving reprehensible ideologies and by its very existence inserting Vichy elements into the heart of the new Republic.

This dark vision is powerful in its simplicity and sensationalism. However, it immediately raises questions. If demography is in essence a state science, why was it institutionalized so late, in 19454? Why would de Gaulle, who was so personally involved in population issues in his post-Liberation provisional government – the same government that founded INED – wish to perpetuate an institution of Vichy? How did INED, which was initially placed in the Ministry of Public Health and Population, come to gain relative autonomy, after being placed under the joint authority of the Ministry of Research and the Ministry of Social Affairs5?

Answering these questions requires jettisoning the idea of a nature or essence of demography6. Apologists and critics date the birth of demography ← 8 | 9 → back to the 17th century and relate it to the extension of state power: the former do so to legitimize it (a science serving collective interests), and the latter to establish its original sin (a science aiming at controlling populations’ behaviours). In the process, they both confuse “tools” and “discipline”. There is no doubt that instruments and arguments put forth in the 17th and 18th centuries have been taken up by what is referred to today as demography. But they arose out of a scientific world that is incomparable with the current one – a world where demography did not exist, but where other disciplines were already involved in assessing populations.

Political arithmetic examined the relationship between population, economic prosperity and political power. Theology reflected on patterns identified by the mathematical analysis of population (the sex ratio at birth, for example) in connection with the idea of divine harmony. Finally, as a science of observation, astronomy drew on the available population data to hone its statistical techniques for error processing7. At the end of the 18th century they were followed, in particular, by administrative statistics, which also focused on studying regular patterns, and by political economy, which analysed the dynamic relationships between populations and resources. In the 20th century biology, mathematics and the social sciences entered the field.

Contrary to our thought habits, a distinction should therefore be made between “population” and “demography”. Population is a subject that several disciplines have long and successively taken up. For its part, demography is a relatively recent specialty: it is in the mid-19th century that Achille Guillard and his son-in-law Louis-Adolphe Bertillon, two ardent Republicans who opposed the non-democratic regime of the Second Empire (1852-1870), defined demography as a science that was exclusively interested in population, by making its subject the internal relationships between the variables that define population – birth, marriage and death rates at the time8. Why does contemporary culture see demography as having a monopoly on population analysis? How did the term “demographers” come to systematically characterize all population specialists, whatever their approach? This very French phenomenon only ← 9 | 10 → dates back to the second half of the 20th century, and this book seeks to understand its foundations.

This involves delving for the first time into INED’s previously unpublished archives, which only really surfaced as a result of the institute’s move in 1998, and the openness of its director, François Héran, to historical research. Their contribution is significant. Be they proponents or critics, participants in the “demography war” which raged in the 1980s and 1990s9 have marshalled their arguments with even greater ease because they were firing blank shots – that is, absent the archives, on the basis of published texts, from which quotes taken out of their context could be used to suit one’s purpose. The sources kept at INED enable a transition from a fragmentary and partial history to a more carefully validated social history. They shed light on the links between the scientific debates of the institute and the political and institutional environment in which it was evolving. The perception of science as a pure, disembodied and timeless activity, and of any violation of this ideal as a defilement, is common to both supporters and denigrators of demography: the former minimize its links to political action, while the latter hold these against it. We can move beyond this portrayal resulting from obsolete scientism without lapsing into relativism. The problem is not how to reveal the linkage between science and policy, but how to characterize its methods and effects.

Much fruitful work has focused on the history of demographic ideas and of demographic institutions, of population policies that demography served, of its boundaries with other disciplines10, and even of its links with political ideologies11. But concepts, methods, academic institutions, political institutions, ideologies and population policies were part of the same ← 10 | 11 → web and simultaneously built. This inter-linkage makes the initially tiny INED a strategic vantage point.

First, its founding concluded an institution-building process that unfolded in less than a decade, from the end of the 1930s to the mid-1940s. It was a short but eventful period. In under ten years five political regimes succeeded one another: the peacetime 3rd Republic (a regime instituted in 1870), the wartime 3rd Republic with its emergency laws (September 1939-July 1940), the Vichy regime (July 1940-August 1944), the provisional government of the French republic (which lasted from August 1944 to October 1946 and was led by General de Gaulle till January 1946), and the beginnings of the 4th Republic (which lasted till 1958). All these regimes made demography a key priority, but the solutions they imagined to give it substance were different each time. While they were constantly being reworked, each of these successive experimentations left lasting traces. In the aftermath of the war the very idea of population policies, and especially the definition of bodies responsible for implementing them, were more or less established. This chronology is one of the findings of this book: we will examine how it entails a rethinking of the “Vichy legacy” in social sciences, and especially in French political culture.

After an examination of INED’s genesis, that of its actual functioning helps identify the handful of key population policymakers until the 1960s and even 1970s12. Their pronatalism fed on both the feeling of decline and debasement that they shared with their contemporaries in the 1930s, and the countervailing state voluntarism. Members of this pioneering generation would carry this message through to the beginning of the 1990s, gradually finding themselves at odds with the development of public opinion. While it commanded a broad consensus from the end of the 1930s until the beginning of the 1950s, pronatalism then slowly waned and, in the eyes of many, reconnected with its conservative and nationalist connotations. Historically, the beginning of major debates in the last fifteen years of the 20th century over the role of demography can be linked to the growing gap between the convictions and influence of these great pioneers, who were ← 11 | 12 → sometimes used by extremist political forces, and the sensibility of a part of the new generations of researchers and citizens13.

Finally, the daily operations of post-war INED under the lead of the statistician Alfred Sauvy (1945-1962) show the intertwining of the state and science at a time when the latter was not protected by any ministerial structure protecting the autonomy of research institutions14. Under constant pressure from the Ministry of Finance, which wished to eliminate public research institutes, INED had to fight for its survival by becoming part of the landscape of the nascent welfare state. This involved a real race to promote personal and institutional networks where the dissemination and application of knowledge were paramount. At first theoretical research was a secondary task. An unexpected process established its legitimacy: the creation of a Population Division in the newly formed UN, which because of the Cold War became a major centre of innovation in demographic science for a while. This body was quickly able to award recognition for scientific quality, of which Alfred Sauvy could avail himself with his authorities. The modest INED was thus pulled two ways.

On the one hand it had to reconcile science and “action” in much more complex ways than is covered by the term “expertise” today. Consequently INED promoted its capacity to offer “demographic intelligence”15. Of the many scientific disciplines involved in population and represented in the institute, demography best dealt with the dual constraints. This “success”, due to a particular institutional context specific to France, explains why the country gives it such a prominent symbolic position today.

On the other hand the institute needed to coordinate its output with two huge areas: the sphere of French public policy, which was booming, and the UN, where global population steering was taking shape. Analysing the origins of INED and observing its daily activity help to capture the place held by the notion of “Population” in the constitution of contemporary society. Throughout the 20th century this key term was built and disputed by a wide variety of ideologies – Catholicism, feminism, racism, social reformism, eugenics, nationalism and many others. In the thick of the action and the assignments, it became the subject of all kinds ← 12 | 13 → of compromises, and even unholy alliances16. Complicated by the succession of political regimes, the constant confrontations and coalition building between the respective defenders of demographic, family and social policies undoubtedly had the biggest impact. This configuration, which remained powerful till the beginning of the 21st century, resulted from their respective pressure groups’ tactical moves from the interwar period through to the 4th Republic. From this perspective, this book can be seen as uncovering what the French welfare state owes to “Population”. But care has been taken to avoid any triumphalism. If Vichy had triumphed, the same notion would have led to the biological – and partly criminal – policies advocated by the eugenicist doctor Alexis Carrel.

This battle of ideologies was also a scientific battle. Among others, biology, mathematics, economics, and psychology fought over the subject of “Population”. France is no more pronatalist by nature than demography is par excellence the population science. Rather, this double identification is due to a chain of events, circumstances, power relations, and individual strategies which will be deconstructed below. Thus, we will be led to dig up the forgotten and sometimes accursed roots of modern society, whose values are surreptitiously permeated by ideologies believed to have disappeared with the fall of Nazism, such as eugenics. By offering a grasp on a past that is still very present today, this work hopes to pave the way for an understanding of population that is more in line with the sensibilities of our time.


XII, 376
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
The 1939 High Committee The »Phony War« The Vichy regime moralism Liberation Demography
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, Bern, 2018. XII, 376 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Paul-André Rosental (Author)

Paul-André Rosental is a full professor at Sciences Po, in Paris. He leads the research team ESOPP, devoted to the history of social, demographic and health policies. He recently authored Destins de l’eugénisme, Le Seuil, 2016, and edited Silicosis. A World History, Johns Hopkins UP, 2017. He has just achieved a ERC Advanced Grant project at the corner between history, social sciences and medicine.


Title: Population, the state, and national grandeur
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