By PIERRE-YVES ROGER
The Associated Press
Tuesday, January 16, 2007; 12:58 PM
PARIS -- It's almost a "bebe" boom: France had more babies in 2006 than in any year in the last quarter-century, capping a decade of rising fertility that has bucked Europe's graying trend, the state statistics agency said Tuesday.
The government trumpeted the figures as a victory for family-friendly policies such as cheap day care and generous parental leave _ many of which were launched under Socialists like presidential candidate Segolene Royal, who was family minister in the early 1990s, and have continued to grow under today's conservative government.
France had 830,000 new babies last year, the highest annual total since 1981, the Insee statistics agency said. That brought France's population to 63.4 million people as of Jan. 1, up from 62.9 million a year earlier.
The fertility rate was 2.0 children per woman, up from 1.92 in 2005 _ and that might make France the most fertile nation in the European Union, Insee director Jean-Michel Charpin predicted.
In 2005, only Ireland had a higher fertility rate than France: the Irish rate was 1.99, to France's 1.94. Irish figures for 2006 were not yet available.
"The deciding factor comes from the fact that it is easier to reconcile professional activity and a family life here than in most other European countries," Charpin said at a news conference.
Families minister Philippe Bas called 2006 a good year for French births.
"This should encourage us to go even further in our ambitious family policy," Bas told lawmakers in parliament Tuesday.
The growing birth rate was a welcome boost for a government plagued by a stagnant economy, high unemployment and voter disillusionment with those in power.
France's fertility rate has been climbing steadily since 1996, Insee said, but it still has not passed 2.1 _ considered what it takes to replace a population in developed countries. The rate in the United States is 2.1.
Charpin noted that the fertility rate among France's immigrant population was slightly higher than among the population at large, but said the difference was minimal.
France is one of the few countries in Europe where most of the population growth comes from births instead of from immigration. Insee predicted the fertility rate would remain high in the coming years.
Most European countries are concerned with how to stem a decades-long decline in fertility rates, fearing it could drag on economic growth and lead to skyrocketing pension bills, as the number of young people contributing to retirement schemes drops while the number of retirees climbs.
Among its pro-family measures, the French government offers euro750 (US$970) a month to parents who take one year's unpaid leave from work after the birth of a third child. Large families also get shopping discounts and reduced fares on public transport. French fathers are also guaranteed paid paternity leave, a measure championed by Royal _ herself a mother of four, who would be France's first woman president.
French life expectancy is also on the rise, at 77.1 years for men and 84 years for women, Insee said.
The number of French marriages is continuing to decline, as more and more French couples are choosing to form civil unions instead, Insee said.