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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 2: The “Phony War” and demographic police (1939-1940)


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Chapter 2: The “Phony War” and demographic police

All family policy must include a ruthless battle against its real enemies. You must therefore ensure that the police services under your command track with the utmost vigor individuals responsible for crimes and offences against the race and the birth rate. Édouard Daladier, circular to prefects, 21 December 1939.

As if by magic, women have stopped wearing lipstick and births have increased. Letter from the Ambassador of France to Berlin on National Socialist demographic policy, 25 May 1939.

The more or less heroic historiography of the High Committee on Population’s founding inextricably links it to the promulgation of the Family Code under the statutory order of 29 July 1939. Within a few months High Committee members succeeded in drafting the first body of coherent measures in the area of population policy.

This historic vision is, like preceding ones, correct but incomplete. First, some authors have played down the package’s coherence and questioned whether it can be grandly labelled “population policy”1. Second, the process unfolded in a much broader political context. The preparation for, and conduct of the war led the Chamber to pass emergency laws increasing the political and administrative powers of the President of the Council (Prime Minister). Finally, and most importantly, these provisions were not the ready-made product of High Committee members’ original thoughts any more so than the High Committee itself had come out of the...

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