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Transformations Of The Family In France

For more than a century, the marriage rate in France was relatively stable (at around 7.5%), until the beginning of the 1970s. Before that decade, the French believed in the importance of marriage, and nine out of ten people were married before the age of fifty.

In 1972, France recorded the largest number of marriages in its history. Then, to the surprise of the demographers and sociologists of the time— considering that the children of the baby boom were of traditional marriage age—the number of marriages rapidly declined starting in 1973: 395,000 in 1974, 355,000 in 1978, 312,000 in 1982 and 266,000 in 1986, resulting in a marriage rate of less than 5 percent. At first this decline was interpreted to show that people were simply delaying marriage due to the increase in the time spent on education, which seemed logical because the average age of those getting married had increased. This hypothesis was questioned, however, because several years later, the marriage rate did not increase. It was then understood that the younger generation was indeed less infatuated with marriage than their parents had been (Le Bras and Roussel 1982).

Consequently, the number of single people increased. These people were not to be confused with those who were single "despite themselves" (Sullerot 1984), those men, either farmers or farm hands, who were unable to get married due to the lack of perspectives inherent in their economic and social situations. These new single people were made up of urban men and women, of whom most were part of the working community and came from affluent social backgrounds. Culturally and economically privileged, many were more inclined to enjoy their freedom than to rush into marriage and assume the responsibility of a family. Because marriage was not seen as something to aim for, these people deliberately chose to remain single.

This upsurge in the number of single people contributed to an increase in the number of people living alone, which doubled between 1968 and 1990, going from three to six million. However, although living alone, some of them had loving and sexual relationships or found companionship to balance their lives, as in the case of some divorced single parents (Le Gall 1992). This was achieved through noncohabitating duos (one couple, two homes). In short, solitary living or, as J.-C. Kaufmann (1999) called it, "solo" life was not automatically synonymous with solitude because a significant number of single people had intimate, sexual relationships.

Although the new single people hardly find the idea of marriage attractive as an institution, they do not reject living together as couples. For the youth of the 1970s, this was often seen as a transition to marriage, a type of trial marriage that allowed for the least amount of social reprobation. Subsequently, living together gained popularity and was no longer limited to the younger generations. The number of unmarried cohabitating couples went from 1.5 million to almost 2.5 million people between 1990 and 1998. Predictably, the number of births out of wedlock also rose substantially. In 1997, four out of ten children were born to parents who were not married.

The act of getting married has ceased to be the act that establishes a couple in France; that role has been replaced by living together: In 1997, 90 percent of new couples started their life together in this way, and more than half of the women (53%) who give birth to their first child were not married.

Not only do the French marry less, but also, the marriages that do occur are more and more precarious. During the 1950s, the divorce rate was relatively stable and fairly low: one out of ten marriages ended in divorce. Then, in the first half of the 1960s, the divorce rate increased slightly and in 1972, the year when the marriage rate began to fall, it increased dramatically. By the end of the twentieth century, it was no longer one marriage out of ten that ended in a divorce, but one out of three. Evidently, the marriage bond has been weakened. It is nonetheless important to recall that the divorce rate stabilized in the middle of the 1980s. To acquire perspective on the instability of relationships, it is necessary to take into account, along with the increase in the number of families in which couples are not married, the precariousness of the unions of couples who live together, which is proportionately higher than among married couples (Toulemont 1996).

One of the consequences of this conjugal instability has been the increase in the number of single-parent families. Since 1982, divorce has replaced widowhood as the main cause of single-parent families. The increase in this type of family, though, has not been dramatic. Almost one family in ten with children was a single-parent family in 1962; the percentage in 1982 was only 10.2 percent and 13.2 percent in 1990 (INSEE 1994). D. Le Gall and C. Martin note: "The novelty of this phenomenon exists not so much in the increase in the number of single-parent families as in the different evolutions within the category of single-parent families" (1987, p. 20). If the increase in single-parent families is a problem, it is due to the high increase in the divorce rate, coupled with out-of-wedlock births, resulting in an increase of the percentage of single-parent families where only the mother is present. In 1990, 86.2 percent of single parents raising one or more children under the age of twenty-five were women, while 13.8 percent were men. Yet in a society where the family is mainly organized around the couple, having only one parent present can generate certain problems. These hardships differ depending on whether the parent is a man or a woman. Single mothers, more of whom head single-parent families than do men, have more difficulties than single fathers because of past economic inequalities between men and women, which have repercussions on the time period following the break-up of the couple (Lefaucheur 1992).

The instability of couples has increased the number of people who enter a second partnership. Most often, in second marriages or other relationships it is fathers with whom the children do not live on a day-to-day basis. I. Théry notes: "40 percent of children whose parents are separated have a stepmother who lives in a different house while 25 percent have a stepfather (with whom they live on a daily basis)" (1988). In other words, using the terms daily step-parent (beau-parent au quotidien) or on-and-off step-parent (beau-parent par intermittence) (Le Gall 1993), children of divorce have a higher probability of having an on-and-off stepmother than a daily stepfather (Le Gall 1996). This explains why, although almost half of these children have at least one stepbrother or stepsister, only 22 percent live with them.

Finally, another major change that started in the first half of the 1960s is a decrease in the birth rate in France. The rate fell from an average of slightly less than three children per woman in the 1950s to 2.58 in 1968, 1.82 in 1978, and 1.8 in 1988. The decline seems to have stabilized since then and is at about 1.75 children per woman, up from the historic low of 1.65 in 1993 and 1994.

French society, then, has gone through many demographic changes. From the one family model of the 1950s, which was only statistically dominant from the 1920s to the 1960s, private living arrangements in France have become much more diverse. Along with life as a married couple, which has changed only slightly, single living and living together have become more established. At the same time, conjugal instability has increased the number of single-parent families, which itself favors the rapid development of reconstituted families.

Adding further to this list of changes is the increase in the number of families formed either through adoption (Fine 1998), medically assisted procreation using sperm donations (Delaisi and Verdier 1994), or families with same-sex parents (Gross 2000). All of these families, along with reconstituted families, have brought about the notion of multirelatives (pluriparentalité) (Le Gall and Bettahar 2001). This term is new, but the media began using it quickly. On August 4, 2000, on the front page of the newspaper, Le Monde, there was an article entitled "My Half-brother, My Half-sister, My Co-parents, Their Stepchildren and I," which ended with the following sentence: "Don't tell the kids that they are going to spend the vacation with 'the family,' but that they are going to go for a stroll with their multirelatives" (Robert-Diard 2000).

In short, the French family has undergone profound and rapid change, but it has also progressively found a new equilibrium.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsFrance - Transformations Of The Family In France, The Contemporary Family: Less Statutory And More Relational, Conclusion