Like many of their Western European counterparts, more French couples are building lives together without stopping to walk down the aisle.
PARIS — Sandrine Folet and Lucas Titouh have two children, a stylish Paris apartment and a 15-year-old partnership.
They have no intention of getting married.
“We don’t feel the need to get married,” said Folet, 36, who has known Titouh, 40, since she was a teenager. “I don’t know many people in our age group who are married.”
In France, marriage has increasingly fallen out of favor. Growing numbers of couples are choosing to raise children, buy homes and build lives without religious or civil approval of their partnerships. In the past generation, the French marriage rate has plunged more than 30 percent, even as population and birthrates have been rising.
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“Marriage doesn’t have the same importance as it used to,” said France Prioux, who directs research on changing social trends for France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies. “It will never become as frequent as it once was.”
Marriage is in decline across much of northern Europe, a pattern some sociologists describe as a “soft revolution” in European society, a generational shift away from Old World traditions and institutions toward a greater emphasis on personal independence.
No fans of marriage
French couples are abandoning the formality of marriage faster than most of their European neighbors and far more rapidly than their U.S. counterparts:
French marriage rates are 45 percent below U.S. figures. 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.
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The trend in France is driven by a convergence of social transitions in the demographic and cultural landscapes, including this generation’s nearly universal estrangement from religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church; massive migration to urban areas, where young adults are more independent from their families; and a society that has become not only tolerant but supportive of personal choice in lifestyles.
The increase in out-of-wedlock birthrates is more dramatic: In 2005, 59 percent of all first-born French children were born to unwed parents, most by choice, not chance. The numbers were not driven by single mothers, teenage mothers or poor mothers, but by couples from all social and economic backgrounds who chose parenthood without marriage vows.
France’s two most high-profile female politicians live with well-known partners they have not married. Ségolène Royal, who last week won the Socialist Party nomination for president in next year’s election, and François 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.”
“Getting married 30 years ago was part of a tradition,” said Maiten de Cazanove, who trains counselors for the Catholic Church’s French Centers for Marriage Preparation, an organization engaged in public outreach to lure more couples to the altar.
“People got married because their parents were married and couldn’t imagine their children not getting married, or having children outside of marriage. … Nowadays, people who don’t want to get married don’t do it to rebel, or to reject religion; they do so because to them, loving someone doesn’t have anything to do with society. It’s personal.”
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.
A small but growing number of couples are taking advantage of a new law recognizing “civil partnerships,” which provide legal recognition of a couple but stop short of a marriage pact. And some couples have married after their children are grown, because although the law provides equal inheritance for children born in or out of wedlock, unwed partners are not automatically entitled to inherit property after the death of a companion.
Contrary to predictions 30 years 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.
“Now it’s not looked down upon,” Folet said. “You don’t have any pressure.”
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.