After carrying out another government reshuffle in early January, and ahead of the Prime Minister’s policy statement, Emmanuel Macron held a press conference on January 16th to lay out the main political orientations on a variety of issues. In particular, he presented the government’s measures for “demographic rearmament”. Borrowing language from ultra-conservative war rhetoric, the President sparked incomprehension and indignation among many feminist activists and associations. Equipop joins in these reactions: women’s bodies must not be instrumentalized to serve the nation or a war effort, whether literally or figuratively speaking. Public action must be driven instead by the realization of the rights of each individual and the quest for gender equality. 

This speech is to be replaced in a context where the stakes are high for the President. As Renaissance doesn’t have the majority in the Parliament, Emmanuel Macron tries to position himself against the rising far-right, while adopting stances traditionally assumed by the right. While France’s position on sexual and reproductive health and rights remains so far unchanged at the international level, Equipop wants to remain vigilant on what’s happening on the national scene.

An anti-feminist rhetoric echoed by the most conservative heads of state 

How can we fail to see in Emmanuel Macron’s words the instrumentalization of women’s bodies, and at the same time of children – for pensions, for the economy… to wage war? Not only does encouraging women to bear children as part of a “war effort” relegates them to a procreative function, but it also strips them of any intentionality in having children, as this action would be directed towards the nation’s interest and not their own. 

This semantics is all the more worrying as it borrows elements of language from the most conservative heads of state, notably in Hungary. This lexicon is also mobilized by masculinist groups and extreme right-wing movements, according to which the West should be “repopulated”, preferably with white men, in the face of an alleged “civilizational decline” (see the Equipop report on masculinist discourses).

Emmanuel Macron may not be mastering the feminist analytical grids, but he can’t ignore the fact that he’s using these terms in a context where the racist concept of “grand remplacement” (Great Replacement theory) has become increasingly visible in France. 

In addition to being problematic as a matter of principle, this kind of public policy centered on the stated aim of “boosting the birth rate” doesn’t work. Countries such as Japan and Poland have experimented with them, to no avail. 

Infertility is indeed a public health problem. However, it has been reduced for too long to “female infertility”, whereas it can also be caused, for example, by sperm disorders. There are, of course, well-known medical causes, but they are still being under-diagnosed and poorly treated precisely because they affect women, such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. Environmental factors like pollutants, pesticides and endocrine disruptors are also to blame.

The weight of social and gender inequalities

Even so, the decline in the birth rate cannot be solely attributed to medical causes. Many factors come into play, both in the desire to have a child and in making this desire a reality. Today, we’re faced with a paradox: never before have so many people been in theory able to have a parenthood project (opening of Assisted Reproductive technology (ART) to lesbian couples and heterosexual women, egg freezing, etc.); yet, the birth rate is falling. The reasons for this lie elsewhere: in the conditions under which this project is carried out, early childhood policies, the failure to take into account the ecological crisis, waiting times for ART, persisting discriminations and stigmatization against same-sex couples and single women who wish to carry out a parental project – in short, anyone who doesn’t fit into the typical heteronormative family model. 

Countries with higher fertility rates, such as those in Northern Europe, are also those where parental leave is the longest and best paid, and where public policies on work-life balance and fathers’ involvement are the most advanced. In this respect, the “birth leave” announced by Emmanuel Macron is a step in the right direction, but its shortening could create difficulties for couples unable to find childcare places for their young children within the allotted time, thus deepening inequalities.

A multi-disciplinary – and feminist – approach is needed 

Most importantly, is the falling birth rate a problem in itself? Should it guide public action? Individual’s rights must be the driving force behind political decision-making. Rather than a “plan to boost the birth rate”, we need to give ourselves the means to implement the objectives set in terms of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and drive forward proactive public policies for gender equality. The aim is not to increase the birth rate, but to give individuals the conditions they need to project themselves into a stable, fair and healthy future, and make their own choices. 

The report to combat infertility submitted to the government was conducted almost exclusively by doctors. The recommendations put forward do not include any social measures, which underlines the need for a multidisciplinary approach to these issues that brings together doctors, feminist researchers, as well as youth, women and parents associations. 

To strengthen the youth’s information on sexual and reproductive health: that what French feminist associations have been calling for, for decades.

In conclusion: sexual and reproductive rights for all!

This is not the first time that demographic issues have been part of Emmanuel Macron’s rhetoric. The president had already raised this issue in 2017, in paternalistic terms that had sparked the indignation of many feminists.

Since then, the stakes seemed to be a bit better understood. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had adopted a fairer, human rights-based approach, which led to the launch of a new international strategy on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) this year. 

The resurgence of this issue in the national debate must be replaced in the context of France’s international action. Just as the government’s action should not be solely focused on boosting the birth rate in France, it must not, at the international level, aim at limiting fertility rates in “Global South” countries. 

We need a comprehensive approach to SRHR, as a continuum of sexual and reproductive health rights, care and services, along with the implementation of social protection measures and ambitious gender equality policies.

* Illustration credit: Olga Mrozek for IPPF x Fine Acts (modification of colors, text and visual organization)