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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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Demography haunts the political culture of France. Its media are passionate about reporting on any increase or fall in births. The relevance of a population policy is discussed during elections. This is par for the course for the French, who do not always see that their sensitivity to demography generally amazes their visitors from abroad. The French exception can be explained by history; its emergence was marked by several phases. From the Second Empire through the end of the 19th century a pronatalist discourse took shape, making strong fertility a condition of national power. Then, beginning in 1896, a real lobby, the Alliance Nationale pour l’Accroissement de la Population française (National Alliance for French Population Growth) effectively disseminated this message to the elites. The latter became especially receptive in the 1930s, a decade plagued by political, economic and demographic depression, and growing fears about the rise of Nazism. The idea of a population and family policy then experienced a golden age of sorts: from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s there was broad consensus on the matter, at least among the main political parties. Finally, this policy was gradually challenged, and has progressively become the subject of fierce controversy. Critics and apologists of demography clashed in the 1990s, with their confrontations occasionally spilling over into the media.

This reversal resulted from significant social and cultural developments. On the one hand the promotion of individual interests and sensitivities at the expense of allegiance to a supposed collective,...

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