WITH changes in marriage, the French are caught in a dilemma. On one hand, cohabitation -- or ``free union,'' as it is called here -- is escalating. It is especially prevalent among younger generations. From 1975 to 1981 there was a threefold increase in the number of unmarried couples in which the man was under 35. A year later, by 1982, some 60 percent of 19-year-old men were cohabiting. In recent years, laws have been extended to help cohabiting couples. A French husband separated from his wife and cohabiting with a mistress, for example, can now legally have both of them covered by his state-supported health insurance.
On the other hand, however, the birthrate is declining. And that, in a nation that has historically lost significant chunks of its population to wars, is an issue of more than passing concern. G'erard Calot, director of the National Institute of Demographic Studies (INED), refers to it as ``the fertility crisis.''
Why the dilemma? Because a decade of French research has reinforced the conclusion that cohabiting couples have far fewer children than married couples. An INED study in 1977 found that after four years together, only about 14 percent of cohabiting couples in France had a child -- while only about 14 percent of couples married for four years did not have children.
In a sense, then, the French are caught between two conflicting forces -- the trend toward cohabitation, and the need to increase the birthrate.
True to their tradition of intellectual debate, French researchers have used this dilemma to spur further thinking about the relation between changes in marriage and the future of society -- something few thinkers in Sweden, Britain, or America have done so far.
The question of birthrates, in particular, continues to be a public issue. Since World War II, the French have poured significant amounts of energy into the ``pro-natalist'' policies to promote childbearing. Not surprisingly, when the Socialist government of Franois Mitterrand came to power in 1981, one of its first acts was to increase family benefits by 25 percent.