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Population, the state, and national grandeur

Demography as political science in modern France


Paul-André Rosental

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.


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This book has analysed how the close interaction between demographic theories, ideologies, policies and institutions shaped thought and action on population in France during the bulk of the 20th century. The period running from the end of the 1930s to the end of the 1950s proved critical for several reasons. Cognitively, it marked France’s embrace of a new scientific model: the American Alfred Lotka’s analytical demography, which formalised population dynamics. This model attained its full recognition in France (and on the international arena) at the Population Congress of 1937 in Paris and remained prominent throughout the whole second third of the 20th century. Politically, this period of constant – and radical – regime change saw a major shift: population and family went from being causes pushed by activists to being integrated in the state apparatus. The creation of administrative positions devoted to population organically assigned a handful of senior officials to pronatalism and familialism. In a virtuous circle, their political and institutional know-how then played a key role in the proliferation of bodies dedicated to population in the last two years of the 3rd Republic, spanning Vichy and Liberation.

From 1939 to 1945 this emerging institutional constellation was constantly disrupted, creating both uncertainty and opportunities. These shifts reshaped the internal hierarchy of the small cadre of officials and activists interested in population, without strong emerging guidelines after Liberation. When General de Gaulle came to power in 1944, those who had questioned, resisted or objected to Vichy, including the...

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