Special to the Register

FRENCH PRESIDENT Jacques Chirac's 33-year-old daughter, Claude, who works at the Elysée Palace as the president's communications adviser, gave birth to a boy last March. The baby, the president's first grandchild, was born out of wedlock. The father is a former French Olympic champion, turned television host.

To Anglo-Saxon eyes, the story had all the makings of a juicy frontpage scandal. It was treated as an inside news brief by most of the French press.

Unlike the prurient Americans and British, who delight in exposing the smallest sexual peccadilloes of their political leaders, the blasé French have never gotten too excited about their leaders' private lives.

To renew the generations, every woman needs to bear an average of 2.1 babies. In the 15 member states of the European Union, the average birth rate is now only 1.45.

Recall their phlegmatic reaction to the revelation that their former president, FranÁois Mitterrand, had had an illegitimate daughter by one of his many mistresses. Hardly an eyebrow was raised when the daughter, Mazarine, now age 21, and her mother were officially presented to the nation alongside Mitterrand's legitimate family at his funeral in January.

Yet, for all their lack of prurience, the French seem obsessed with sex, incapable of selling yogurt or appliances without it. Radio and television talk shows are dominated by it.

The “cinq-‡-sept,” in which businessmen and women reportedly sneak out of their offices for secret trysts with their lovers, has—if the French are to be believed—become a veritable national institution.

In spite of this, however, polls show that 72 percent of men and 86 percent of women say they have never been unfaithful to their spouses. Only 3 percent of men and 1 percent of women admit to having been unfaithful “often.” For the overwhelming majority (84 percent of men and 93 percent of women), their ideal is to live with the same person throughout their lives.

“The family,” far from being an outmoded value, has rarely been held in higher esteem. Ninety-three percent of the French say they have “confidence” in the family; 89 percent hope it will remain the foundation of society; eight out of ten turn to it first in times of crisis.

Even among the young, the family appears to be back in favor. Nine out of ten 18 to 25-year-olds say they would like to “found a family” of their own one day. Eight out of ten rate “the family” as the most important value in their lives, second only to “friendship.” “Sexuality” is very low on their list.

But it is not the same “family” as in the past. Marriage is no longer considered important. The number of weddings in France has fallen to a post-war record low of around 250,000 a year, 40 percent less than the peak in 1972. Only one in two weddings takes place in a church, compared with almost 100 percent 25 years ago.

An estimated 2.2 million couples live together out of wedlock, seven times as many as twenty years ago. More than one in three French babies are born out of wedlock— the highest rate in the European Union outside Nordic countries such as Norway, Sweden and Iceland, where about half of all babies are born to unmarried couples.

Outside of traditional Catholic circles, illegitimacy no longer carries a stigma in France. Hence the lack of fuss over President Chirac's new grandson. Chirac himself, in fact, announced the news. Any contradiction between his daughter's private life and his own public promotion of family values was apparently lost on him.

Last month, Chirac's prime minister, Alain Juppé, hosted a one-day “conference on the family,” uniting family associations, trade unions, political parties and government ministers, as the kick-off to a nationwide debate designed to lead the collaboration (in Chirac's words) of a “new, ambitious policy for the family.”

Its not merely—or even primarily— morals that the government is worried about. It is also very concerned about the catastrophic decline in France's birth rate which has fallen over the last thirty years from an average of 2.8 live births per woman to 1.7, despite having one of Europe's most generous systems of family support and child care.

France's birth rate, however, is still relatively high compared with most of its European neighbors. But that does not mean its situation is good; simply that it's less disastrous than the rest of Europe.

In order to renew the generations, every woman needs to bear an average of 2.1 babies. In the 15 member states of the European Union, the average birth rate is now only 1.45, down from 2.6 in 1965.

The French system of family support, which costs tax-payers a hefty 250 billion francs a year, is now geared to promoting big families. A flat-rate child benefit of 665 francs a month is paid to all families, regardless of their income, from the birth of a second child, rising to 3,222 francs for five children.

Although eighty percent of French women of child-bearing age work, most of them full-time, this is not the main cause of the birth rate's fall.

Child care facilities in France are, on the whole, excellent. Virtually all three- to five-year-olds and two in five two-year-olds are enrolled in full-time state nursery schools, while state-subsidized “crËches” are often available to look after infants from as young as 2 months.

Some argue that if women were offered sufficiently high financial inducement to stay at home and look after their children, then more babies would be born.

Yet evidence does not always bear this out. In Sweden, for example, where mothers receive 90 percent of their former salary for two years after their baby's birth, the birth rate is 1.9—barely higher than in France where women get only three months paid maternity leave. In Germany, the generous incentives paid to encourage mothers to stay at home have not affected the country's birth rate of 1.26—one of the lowest in Europe.

Most women just like to get out of the house. A recent study of working women in France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain showed that half would want to work even if she had enough to live on; less than one quarter said they would prefer to stay at home.

Diana Geddes is based in Paris.