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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 4: Population and political construction of a new society: the government of Algiers and the Liberation period (1943-1945)


France lacks men, in quantity as well as quality, creating a terrible void […]. And this brings us to the root cause of our woes and the main obstacle to our recovery. Charles de Gaulle [Head of the government], Speech to the Consultative Assembly, 2 March 1945.

The question arises as to whether, to improve effectiveness, it is preferable to present [our] policy in a way that emphasizes its familial aspect or rather highlights the demographic side of the problem. Note on the future direction of family policy, French Committee of National Liberation (CFLN), January 1944.

The last years of the Third Republic provided a glimpse of the contrast between a high-level pronatalist political activism, and an institutional framework in which the High Committee on Population served as a fig leaf. Although it stepped up population measures pursued by the Daladier and Reynaud governments, Vichy did not change the situation much. If anything, the regime weakened the population cause by placing greater emphasis on family while demoting the ministry in charge of the issue to the rank of state secretariat. This sharply contrasted with the first months after the Liberation (August 1944), due to several factors: the personal beliefs of the head of the provisional government, General de Gaulle, who endorsed the association between demographic vitality and national power; his entourage’s support for the population cause; the implementation of an ambitious social security system, which increased the legitimacy of population-based reasoning and encouraged coordination with...

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