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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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Preface by Philip Nord


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Philip Nord Princeton University

I took a seminar in graduate school on the History of Modern France, and Philippe Ariès’s Histoire des populations françaises figured on the list of readings. This was the early 1970s, not long after the book’s 1971 publication. A few years later, I was in France, researching a dissertation on a late nineteenth-century subject and stumbled upon an organization, l’Alliance nationale pour l’accroissement de la population française [National Alliance for French Population Growth], founded in 1896 by the doctor turned statistician, Jacques Bertillon. The wave of feminist scholarship that swept over the field of French history in the decade following made it clear that French policy-makers in the first half of the twentieth century had worried about a stagnating birth rate and, prompted by such worries, enacted laws to punish abortion and obstruct women’s access to birth control. In 1992, I read a manuscript version of Susan Pedersen’s soon-to-be-published classic, Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain and France, 1914-1945. In it, she demonstrated, among other things, how France’s persistent preoccupation with natality shaped its welfare-state institutions, designed with the protection of motherhood and family in mind. I came upon Michel Foucault’s celebrated lectures on governmentality later in a volume titled The Foucault Effect (1991). Modern states look on population as a font of power, a resource to be managed and exploited for the state’s greater glory: Foucault’s argument was an...

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