Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Marriage in France: Passé

The Post featured a surprisingly complex and well-reported article today about the decline of marriage in France. Marriage rates in the Western world have been on a decline for awhile and even more in parts of Europe. The declining marriage rate in northern Europe is seen as a rejection of those institutions that promulgated marriage--the Catholic Church, the traditional family, the closed society--no more so than in France.

In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, the marriage rate in France was 4.3 per 1,000 people, compared with 5.1 in the United Kingdom and 7.8 in the United States. The only European countries with rates lower than France's were Belgium, at 4.1, and Slovenia, with 3.3.

The knee-jerk response in some American quarters will of course be that the French are "godless," "socialist," and "relativist." However, the consequences of the marriage decline has not been chaos, broken homes, or rampant polygamy:

Contrary to predictions three decades ago, when the marital downslide began, French family social structures have not disintegrated. Instead, society has accepted and embraced changing attitudes. French law stopped distinguishing between children born in or out of wedlock more than 30 years ago.

A willingness to believe that the marriage decline stems from a dissolution of morals would be too eager to ascribe moral failings to a people, and it misses what is so fascinating about this trend: there are neither the same incentives nor influences to get married as there used to be:
The tax breaks the French government offers married couples, which are not as substantial as U.S. marriage tax reductions, are not enough to persuade most cohabitating couples to formalize their relationships. In France, the greatest financial and tax incentives target the number of children a couple has rather than the parents' marital status.

The couple that is profiled in the story did not see a reason to get married, but they have two children and have cohabitated for many years. It is tempting to compare the U.S. and France, but because of the different populations and sizes between the two countries, it would be difficult to draw conclusions . It is fair to say though that marriage in the U.S. has become a racket. When so many weddings devolve into a game of keeping up with the Jones', it's no wonder that some people would just assume avoid the game. Can a society that marvels at the "huge rock" on a woman's finger and fawns at million-dollar weddings really judge one that does not consummate as many such affairs?

Ségolène Royal, who last week won the Socialist Party nomination for president in next year's election, and Francois Hollande, the party's leader, have had four children during their 25 years of cohabitation. French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, another possible presidential contender, has spent nearly 22 unmarried years living with Patrick Ollier, a member of the National Assembly.

"We never had time to get married," Alliot-Marie said in a recent interview. Royal has expressed distaste for the notion, once calling marriage a "bourgeois institution."

"I don't see how marriage would bring any more to our union as a couple," [Sandrine] Folet said. "It doesn't take away anything, it doesn't bring anything."

Like anything else, institutions that no longer seem functional may be deemed irrelevant. France and its neighbors may be headed towards total secularism, but that does not mean that they are valueless and rudderless.

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