At a wedding in the Loire last weekend, in the grounds of the groom’s parents’ small château, an acquaintance from work unexpectedly materialised out of the crowd. In his early thirties, he introduced me to his blonde, gangling wife, maybe a year younger than he. The conversation turned to children: they have four, including a five-month-old baby — ‘and a fifth is on the way’. ‘Where are they?’ I asked. They were staying with his wife’s siblings, of which there are ten.
The phenomenon of young parents and large families is widespread in France, and unique among Europe’s native populations with the exception of gypsy families in Slovakia or Albanians in Kosovo. But to quote these categories in the same breath is to underline the key difference: the French people running the demographic marathon against the Muslims are not white trash. I had dinner last year with a retired general, an ex-colonel and a corporate lawyer in his forties: these three embodiments of the establishment had 22 children between them. The breast of an elegant and striking middle class lady in her sixties whom we met in Provence last summer swelled with pride when she told us that she had 12 children. ‘And 17 grandchildren,’ she added for good measure.
Producing children is a competitive sport among the French middle and upper classes. Families with three children are considered small. You often meet people, or hear of them, who have children boxing and coxing in the sitting room or the hall as their cramped Paris flats burst at the seams. They think little of it, especially since there is nearly always a family house somewhere in the country, usually shared with cousins, to which they flee during the numerous school holidays. The difference could hardly be greater with Italy, say, which used to have a reputation for big families but whose cities now resemble Vulgaria in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, so devoid are they of little ones.
What is the explanation for this astonishing fecundity? Infrastructure and finance certainly help: Paris is heaving with crèches and garderies where you can leave babies and small children for the day. Your income tax falls by about 15 per cent each time you have a child and there is child benefit for all. There are also schools everywhere, which start at the age of three: there are five schools within five minutes’ walk of our flat in Paris, and many more if you are prepared to walk for ten (including one of the best in the country). We now listen in horror and disbelief as our English friends describe the distances they travel to take their children to school in London, the hoops they have to jump through to get a place in state schools, or the cost of private education. Private schools in France are so cheap that I cannot remember how much we pay.
But the real explanation is state of mind. A majority of the people having large families are Catholics. Their determination to produce babies is testimony to a radicalism among conservatives in France which is totally absent in Britain. Whereas conservatives in England hardly ever mention social or cultural issues — birth rate, immigration, and the link between these and inner city blight and bad schooling are largely taboo — there is a whole tranche of the French bourgeoisie for whom such issues are not only obvious but also urgent. By having children, they are trying to do something about it. They are social and cultural pessimists, to be sure, convinced that their country is going (or has gone) to the dogs, but they also have cussed determination to continue the fight even when they think the war is lost.
I find I often get engaged in competitive pessimism with them as a result. I plead with them that cultural decline is worse in England and they look bemused. But their parries are so naive and, well, childlike that I know I am right. When they worry about gangs or drugs in schools, they cannot imagine that the drugs in question are anything more than the occasional spliff which frightens them enough already. That a schoolboy can be knifed to death by his schoolmates, as happened in Victoria Station last year, is completely incredible to them.
The excessively pragmatic English, indeed, manage to muddle through all crises, however terminal, shrugging them off with a bittersweet sigh or moving to Somerset where they can preserve their liberal illusions about multiculturalism. Previously members of the ‘white flight’ to the English provinces ourselves (before moving to Paris), we never met anyone who admitted that they simply did not want their children to go to a state school in London. The white middle classes prefer to give elliptical and genteel excuses for their decision to move to the country.
Radical Catholics are a minority in France, to be sure, but a big one. The annual Whitsuntide pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres has about 8,000 or 9,000 people walking for three days, and a further 7,000 or so in the rival pilgrimage in the opposite direction: two small armies. That’s 10,000 or 15,000 families for starters, and many more cannot do the pilgrimage precisely because they have to stay at home to look after their small children. Moreover, there are numerous other similar initiatives in the far more numerous mainstream parishes where the babies are also popping out like billy-o. A lady I met at the wedding had organised a pilgrimage in her village in the Poitou to pray for a sick friend and, to her own astonishment, 400 people from all walks of life turned out for a day’s march. (The friend was cured, so they did the same thing the following year in thanksgiving.)
Such events partly feed off the French penchant for group sport activities but of course the motivation is mainly religious and political in the broadest sense. It is platitudinous to say that the French are a nation of rebels, but it is a common mistake to believe that this rebelliousness is necessarily left-wing. On the contrary, there is a vigorous tradition of right-wing revolt in France which, in history, has been almost as violent. Joan of Arc remains the emblematic figure: her gloriously improbable struggle is as fresh in the memory of all French patriots today as is that of the second world war for the British. The failed putsch against De Gaulle by anti-communist generals in Algiers in 1961 was perhaps the last hurrah — and even that was an extreme-right rebellion against a right-wing former rebel — but before that the royalist riots of 6 February 1934 nearly overthrew the Republic itself. The Resistance in any case was, in its initial stages, a right-wing and even extreme right-wing movement — it was only after 1941 that the Communists joined it en bloc — while of course the Paris collaborators during the Occupation included numerous prominent extreme right-wing former dissidents such as Robert Brasillach, Charles Maurras and Céline. Part of French Catholicism today remains influenced by the inheritance of Maurras’s anti-republican movement, Action française, condemned by Pope Pius XI in 1926, which is why a number of French Catholics are happy to rebel not only against Paris but also even against Rome itself.
Of course, the great majority of French Catholics are either centrists or non-political. There is only a small overlap between religion and right-wingery and the main body of the Church regards the radical right with disdain. But even these people are having babies. When you add together the quarter or so of the French population which is likely to vote for Marine le Pen next spring, the other conservatives who share her ideas but who are too snobbish to vote for her, and the unpolitical Catholics who are voting with the pitter-patter of tiny feet, you easily tot up a third of the French population. For these people at least, politics, like charity, begins at home.