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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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Chapter 1: Glory or contingencies: the 1939 High Committee and the establishment of a body for population


The French population is melting away like a burning lump of coal that maintains its volume. Alfred Sauvy, Revue de l’Alliance nationale contre la dépopulation, February 1939.

An institutional precedent?

French political and institutional culture is used to the idea of agencies devoted to population. Yet these various agencies have very few foreign counterparts. This French peculiarity is relatively recent. The emergence of contemporary institutions dedicated to population or family can be traced back to the Liberation of 1945. General de Gaulle’s provisional government and its immediate successors created advisory bodies, ministerial departments, bodies devoted to migration or to family, and a State Institute dedicated to research (INED). Many still exist today, although some have changed names in the interim.

This boom raises the classic question of institutional precedent: to what were these agencies successors, or what new space did they occupy? Strictly speaking the answer is not clear-cut. First, the Liberation government recreated institutions that had existed at the end of the 3rd Republic and been dissolved during the Occupation (Haut Comité de la Population – High Committee on Population). It also officially maintained Vichy institutions, such as the Commissariat général à la famille (General Commissariat for the Family), which later became a ministerial department, and the so-called “Carrel Foundation”1, a research institute that was then statutorily replaced ← 15 | 16 → by INED. Thus, while the Liberation appears to be the starting point from today’s perspective, it often recreated pre-existing...

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