Over the last 30 years France has witnessed a sharp rejection of the institution of marriage, with people marrying less often and later (30 % of men and women now in their 30s will never marry). This new and lasting decline in marriage rates, Patrick Festy argues, has no historical precedent and is the result of deep-seated factors that are sufficiently stable for it to be likely that the trend will continue.
The baby boom of the period 1945-1965, Festy reminds us, was accompanied by a marriage boom that strengthened the links between marriage and fertility and the insistence on the need for children to grow up within marriage. Since then radical changes have occurred, with fewer marriages and a decline in fertility, despite the doubling of births outside marriage, which are now estimated to run at 300 000 per year (60 % of these seem not to be legitimated).
Comparative studies show that while most countries of northern Europe are experiencing similar trends with regard to marriage as in France, the changes in southern Europe are somewhat different. Fertility rates in central and southern Europe have fallen more sharply than elsewhere in Europe, and the decline in marriages (and therefore in legitimate births) has not been offset by an increase in births outside marriage.
From the economic angle, Festy points out, the relative financial and material advantages that marriage used to offer one or other spouse are less and less important, and the increase in the numbers of women in paid work makes the effects of divorce even worse. Changes in the law, he adds, have very little impact on marriage and fertility rates.
The introduction in France at the end of 1999 of the Civil Solidarity Pact (which recognises a wider range of long-term, stable relationships) raises new issues yet, according to Festy, "it may not have a huge impact on the evolution of marriage". In conclusion, he adds, "the decline of marriage is an element in a larger shift that is still under way, and which could lead to a revival of the family based on altered relationships between the sexes and the generations".