By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
PARIS -- Sandrine Folet and Lucas Titouh have two children, a stylish Paris apartment and a 15-year-old partnership.
They have no intention of getting married.
"We don't feel the need to get married," said Folet, 36, who has known Titouh, 40, since she was a teenager. "I don't know many people in our age group who are married."
In France, the country that evokes more images of romance than perhaps any other, marriage has increasingly fallen out of favor. Growing numbers of couples are choosing to raise children, buy homes and build family lives without religious or civil approval of their partnerships. In the past generation, the French marriage rate has plunged more than 30 percent, even as population and birthrates have been rising.
"Marriage doesn't have the same importance as it used to," said France Prioux, who directs research on changing social trends for France's National Institute of Demographic Studies. "It will never become as frequent as it once was."
Marriage is in decline across much of northern Europe, from Scandinavia to France, a pattern some sociologists describe as a "soft revolution" in European society -- a generational shift away from Old World traditions and institutions toward a greater emphasis on personal independence.
But French couples are abandoning the formality of marriage faster than most of their European neighbors and far more rapidly than their American counterparts: French marriage rates are 45 percent below U.S. figures. In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, the marriage rate in France was 4.3 per 1,000 people, compared with 5.1 in the United Kingdom and 7.8 in the United States. The only European countries with rates lower than France's were Belgium, at 4.1, and Slovenia, with 3.3.
The trend in France is driven by a convergence of social transitions in both the demographic and cultural landscapes, including this generation's nearly universal estrangement from religion, especially the Catholic Church; massive migration to urban areas, where young adults are more independent from their families; and a society that has become not only tolerant but supportive of personal choice in lifestyles.
The increase in out-of-wedlock birthrates is even more dramatic: Last year, 59 percent of all first-born French children were born to unwed parents, most by choice, not chance. The numbers were not driven by single mothers, teenage mothers or poor mothers, but by couples from all social and economic backgrounds who chose parenthood without marriage vows.
France's two most high-profile female politicians live with well-known partners they have not married. Ségolène Royal, who last week won the Socialist Party nomination for president in next year's election, and Francois Hollande, the party's leader, have had four children during their 25 years of cohabitation. French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, another possible presidential contender, has spent nearly 22 unmarried years living with Patrick Ollier, a member of the National Assembly.
"We never had time to get married," Alliot-Marie said in a recent interview. Royal has expressed distaste for the notion, once calling marriage a "bourgeois institution."
"Getting married 30 years ago was part of a tradition," said Maiten de Cazanove, who trains counselors for the Catholic Church's French Centers for Marriage Preparation, an organization engaged in public outreach to lure more couples to the altar. "People got married because their parents were married and couldn't imagine their children not getting married, or having children outside of marriage. . . . Nowadays, people who don't want to get married don't do it to rebel, or to reject religion; they do so because to them, loving someone doesn't have anything to do with society. It's personal."
The tax breaks the French government offers married couples, which are not as substantial as U.S. marriage tax reductions, are not enough to persuade most cohabitating couples to formalize their relationships. In France, the greatest financial and tax incentives target the number of children a couple has rather than the parents' marital status.
A small but growing number of couples are taking advantage of a new law recognizing "civil partnerships," which provides for legal recognition of a couple but stops short of the entanglements of a marriage pact. And some couples have married after their children are grown, because although the law provides equal inheritance for children born in or out of wedlock, unwed partners are not automatically entitled to inherit property after the death of a companion.
Contrary to predictions three decades ago, when the marital downslide began, French family social structures have not disintegrated. Instead, society has accepted and embraced changing attitudes. French law stopped distinguishing between children born in or out of wedlock more than 30 years ago.
"Now it's not looked down upon," Folet said, settling onto a snow-white dining chair in her living room as a dozen flickering candles held off the dusk of a recent autumn evening. "You don't have any pressure."
Folet, the vivacious, brown-eyed daughter of parents who were restaurateurs, met Titouh, the striking, ebony-haired son of a grocery shop owner, as a teenager in the eastern Paris suburb of Bagnolet, where both families lived. They became friends, and friendship flowered into romance.
But Folet's family moved to Brittany in search of a more lucrative restaurant, and the teenage sweethearts separated. Unable to find a job after she graduated from high school, Folet returned to Paris in search of work.
Folet not only found work, but with the help of friends she reconnected with Titouh. After a few months, the two moved into a small apartment together. Nine years later, she became pregnant with their first child, Tom, now 6. Their daughter, Lola, is 2 1/2 .
"It was different for my parents," said Folet, who is model-thin and frequently flashes a warm smile that melts the sharp contours of her face. "You had to get married to have a child."
She looked up as Titouh, a wiry man with a thick stubble and eyes the color of rich coffee, arrived home -- apologetically late -- from his job as an engraver at an office stationery shop.
Lola, clutching a stuffed rabbit gray with wear, padded out of the bedroom and clambered onto his lap.
Titouh pondered the reasons that sociologists and other experts have offered for the decline of marriage: rejection of religion, a breakdown in society, a "me first" generation reluctant to make long-term commitments.
None of that is true, he said. He paused, then added slowly, "Well, for me, there is a rejection of religion."
Both Folet and Titouh credit their parents' generation for laying the foundation for the social shifts of the newer generation. Folet said her parents were under pressure from their parents not only to marry in the church but to have their children baptized as Catholic. Her parents were lukewarm: They baptized Folet but bucked tradition and never baptized her sister, born four years later.
"Now parents are evolving," Titouh said. "They're not forcing their children to get married."
The couple said none of their parents has ever raised the question of marriage with them or made a comment about their unmarried status. Their children carry Titouh's family name.
Marriage is not an issue they discuss with each other. They don't necessarily oppose it; their feelings are much more ambivalent than that.
"I don't see how marriage would bring any more to our union as a couple," Folet said. "It doesn't take away anything, it doesn't bring anything."
That is not to say there aren't occasional awkward social moments, especially during introductions to strangers.
"Saying, 'This is my friend or my companion,' doesn't say you've been together as long as we have," Titouh said. "So I say, 'This is my wife,' not to have problems."
"When you say 'husband' and 'wife,' it's more concrete," Folet conceded. "More like a real couple, not a relationship in passing."
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.