PARIS • Just a blip, or the end of an era?
France used to be one of the few European countries where birth rates were positive, approaching an almost exact replacement level, and thereby promising that France's overall population could continue renewing itself in almost exactly the same numbers from one generation to the next.
No longer, however, for the 2017 population statistics, just released in Paris, make for sober reading. Instead of the average of two children per woman recorded until recently, French women now give birth to an average of only 1.88 children each.
The "natural balance" - that is, the difference between births and deaths - is "historically low", warns France's National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies; in fact, it is at its lowest since the end of World War II. The exceptional demographic dynamism that characterised France until a few years ago seems to be on the decline.
Elsewhere in Europe, the situation is grimmer still. The average fertility rate across the European Union is a dismal 1.59, with so-called "Catholic" nations where contraceptives were once either frowned upon or banned now recording some of the biggest drops; Italy's birth rate is only 1.34 per woman, and falling. And although in Germany, Europe's biggest nation, birth rates are now slightly edging up, the fertility rate is still only 1.5, and the country is projected to lose anything up to 13 million residents by the middle of this century. The share of working-age Germans is projected to shrink from around 60 per cent of the population today to only 50 per cent.
France's population dip is particularly worrying for other European governments, largely because the French pioneered efforts to boost birth rates, and therefore appear to have provided the model to follow. Unlike other European countries which offered young families cash, longer maternity leave or specific tax credits as incentives for having more children, France went down a different route: it created an extensive network of almost-free kindergarten and infant schools.
That meant that working women could have more children and still return to the labour force and safeguard their career promotions. But if the French with their innovative methods could not arrest their population decline, then the rest of Europe has no hope of doing this either.
The economic impact of such seemingly inexorable population declines is well-documented. These include unsustainable pension provisions, growing budget deficits as the tax base diminishes but government expenditure does not, and declining consumer spending; Japan today already faces such a quagmire. But the political implications of such a population trend are just as important, although they are less well-documented.
The quickest way of redressing imbalances created by population declines is, of course, immigration. Importing labour from another country not only ensures adequate supply levels but also - at least in Europe's case - higher birth rates; the families of immigrants tend to have more babies, and in countries such as Britain, first-generation Britons may account for most of the net population growth.
PROBLEMS WITH THE IMMIGRATION SOLUTION
Yet there are problems with relying on higher immigration to compensate for an ageing population.
The first is the inevitable political backlash. Back in 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel earned praise for throwing open her country's borders to all asylum-seekers.
But instead of promoting the cause of immigration, Dr Merkel's gesture is now almost universally regarded as a reckless move which did immigration a great disservice; an anti-immigrant party came out of nowhere to become Germany's third-largest political movement, and the chancellor is still struggling to form a new coalition government precisely because German politicians cannot agree on how to restrict immigration. No other European government is likely to copy Dr Merkel's example.
Furthermore, the numbers of immigrants required to arrest Europe's population declines are very big; even the one million immigrants who were admitted to Germany during the chaotic few months of 2015 will do nothing to address Germany's population shortfall.
And although immigrant families do initially boast of higher birth rates, within one generation they settle down to the population pattern in their new country of residence: migrant women in Italy, for example, are already down to 1.89 children per person, much better than the "locals", but still not sufficient.
To make matters worse, Europe is undergoing not one but two demographic crises at the same time.
In Western Europe, the problem is one of low birth rates. But in the former communist part of Eastern Europe, the challenge is wholesale depopulation, as literally millions leave to seek better-paid jobs elsewhere. Up to 17 per cent of the population of Poland and Romania - Eastern Europe's biggest nations - have already left and, if the trend continues, these countries' populations may be reduced within a few decades to the size they recorded back in the 19th century.
As a result, the wealth disparities and political differences between the Eastern and Western half of Europe will grow wider; this split is already imposing a severe strain on the European Union, with potentially serious consequences for the future. As both East and West in Europe grow old, the West may remain wealthy and in gentle decline, while the East is prevented from acquiring wealth, but experiences the decline in double-fast time.
APPEAL TO NOSTALGIA FOR VOTES
Throughout Europe, older people tend to vote in large numbers, while young people usually don't vote at all. The outcome is skewed electoral results, pushing Europe further to a more conservative segment of the political spectrum.
It is noticeable that socialist parties are in steep decline in most EU countries. Even in Britain, where the opposition Labour Party seems to have bucked the trend by attracting a bigger following, this was achieved by appealing to middle-aged people who never directly experienced the old decrepit socialist Britain of the past, but can be persuaded to have a certain nostalgia for that period when every economic decision seemed so simple and self-evident.
The referendum decision to leave the EU was also the product of this older generation of British voters, who were keen to return to the supposed certainty of the past rather than be challenged by the unpredictability of the future and who turned up at the ballot boxes on referendum day in much larger numbers than Britain's youngsters, for whom the EU is simply a way of life.
Older electorates often also preclude broader economic reform. One key reason why British Prime Minister Theresa May started last year's general election campaign enjoying a huge lead over her opponents but ended the elections by losing her overall majority is that Mrs May raised during the campaign the possibility that the British may have to sell most of their assets in order to help pay for their long-term medical care, should they be afflicted by acute illnesses in old age.
Mrs May's approach to funding the growing costs of old age care may have made some logical sense, but her electorate won't wear it. And that's a lesson which other European countries are now drawing.
In Italy, where a general election campaign is now in full swing, Mr Silvio Berlusconi, the 81-year-old media billionaire, is riding high in the popularity stakes precisely because he promised to ditch plans to reform Italy's pension system. Everyone knows that this pension system is unaffordable. But many Italian voters want the reform to take place after they are gone.
Is it still possible that Europe may be able to avoid its current predicament? Theoretically, yes. The dip in birth rates in France may be due to temporary cuts in the country's welfare spending; fewer than 50,000 new infant care spaces were created over the past five years, instead of the 275,000 initially planned.
Reverse these cuts, planners in Paris argue, and France's population could perhaps approach replacement levels again.
Besides, governments have been notoriously bad at predicting population figures, and may be equally bad today; if the "baby boom" of two generations ago took all planners by surprise, there is no reason why a similar boom may not do the same, undermining gloomy predictions.
But unless this population miracle happens soon, Europe's fate as an inherently conservative, risk-averse continent, still keen to vote into power young politicians such as Mr Emmanuel Macron in France but also determined to prevent them from changing Europe's current welfare arrangements, seems virtually guaranteed.