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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 7: The Creation of a National Institute of Demography


In order to be cured, a sick person must be enlightened, shown the nature and cause of his illness, be informed of the principles guiding his treatment and finally, provided with hope for a cure. This is especially necessary when the sick person is not suffering, does as he pleases, is unhelpful with his doctor and refuses bitter pills and painful injections. Such is the role that information must play in the treatment of our demographic ailment. Robert Debré and Alfred Sauvy, Des Français pour la France (French for France), 1946, p. 255.

INED’s creation in October 1945 was a doubly important moment. It inherently marked a revolution: for the first time, a state institution was exclusively devoted to reflection on population. The contrast with the High Committee on Population, which primarily depended on the knowledge of others, or with the Carrel Foundation, which had much broader objectives, clearly shows the magnitude of this innovation. INED’s foundation also constitutes a convenient heuristic anchor point. The organisation of the very first INED concretely informs the post-war concept of population, its main concerns and the ways to tackle and articulate them into a material scientific arrangement.

This moment was a crossroads. In its own way, the young INED reaped the legacy of the seven decisive years explored in the preceding chapters and of its three successive political regimes (3rd Republic, Vichy and the Liberation period). The way it retained and excluded the various sciences related...

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