In the last several centuries, no two countries have left such an impact on continental Europe as Germany and France. The giants have long jockeyed for position, often determining the fate of their neighbors in the process. In their battles for influence, demographic advantage has often proved telling, with greater population frequently translating into greater influence. And as it was in yesteryear so it is today: With the demographic momentum swinging from Germany back to France in the 21st century, profound changes are in store for both countries — as well as for Europe at large.
Both Germany and France are situated on the expansive North European Plain that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to Russia, but their respective terrains possess different attributes. While France boasts incredibly fertile land around Paris that has historically allowed the country to feed giant populations, Germany's land is less fertile yet more connected, as several long, navigable rivers have facilitated communication, trade and capital accumulation for centuries.
France Harnesses its People Power
In the preindustrial era, France's agricultural abundance provided it key advantages at a time when the need for manpower was paramount. During the French Revolution in 1789, the country was the largest nation west of Russia. Combined with the energy unleashed by the revolution, this demographic strength helped produce an expansive and powerful nation. Napoleon soon directed a huge army of conscripts across Europe in campaigns of conquest — defeating Germany's progenitor, Prussia, along the way — before ultimately succumbing at Waterloo to a coalition of neighbors who were determined to halt France's rise.
But the revolution also sowed the seeds of France's future demographic challenges, as the country's fertility rate began to diminish after 1789. The reason for this drop has divided demographers, but evidence suggests the French became the first culture to use contraception within marriage on a mass scale in the post-revolutionary era. Some scholars have also linked the phenomenon to Napoleon's abrogation of the Salic law, the feudal tradition that bestowed property on the first son alone. As a result, families seeking to prevent the excessive division of their wealth had motivations to limit the number of births. Regardless of the reason, France's population growth rate flattened in the 19th century — an issue compounded by the country's location next door to Europe's rising power, Germany.
Finding Strength in Unity
The 19th century was Germany's coming-out party. The sleeping giant had been divided for centuries into smaller princedoms and independent cities, but Prussia gradually succeeded in uniting these disparate entities under a single banner during the course of the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution also benefited the country: With its numerous coal reserves, ease of transport and established manufacturing culture, the nascent state soon became a major economic hub. This success precipitated population growth, allowing modern Germany's forerunner to begin catching up with its larger Gallic neighbor. In terms of population, the lands that became Germany finally drew level in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War — the event that ushered in German unification. In subsequent decades, Germany continued its rapid demographic growth, leaving France far behind. Between 1871 and 1914, Germany's population grew from 41 million to 67.7 million, while France's population crept up from 36 million to a mere 40 million.
The growth of the giant on the doorstep caused angst in France, prompting the organization of various campaigns to boost fertility at the beginning of the 20th century. Writer Emile Zola helped found the National Alliance for the Growth of the French Population (Alliance Nationale), which spearheaded pro-natalist movements that introduced family-friendly policies, such as maternity leave, to encourage couples to have babies. The campaign, however, failed to close the demographic gap on Germany, whose demographic and industrial power — coupled with profound geographic insecurities — drove the Continent toward war in 1914 and precipitated Berlin's own Napoleon-style campaign of conquest in 1939. In the end, the conflagrations led to more than 2 million deaths in France and around 10 million in Germany.
Overtaking a Giant
Since the world wars, demographic developments have again come to favor France, which has somewhat bucked the worldwide trend made possible by advances in medicine — namely, that decreased mortality rates have also reduced the need for families to have as many children, thereby lowering the fertility rate. Most countries experienced rapid population growth in the period between the decrease in the mortality rate and the corresponding drop in the fertility rate, but France has managed a smoother transition thanks to its early adoption of contraception and earlier experience of flat population growth in the 19th century, as well as the legacy of Zola-era fertility policies, all of which fostered relatively high birth rates. After World War II, France witnessed a more prolonged baby boom than Germany, whose fertility rate dropped more appreciably like other countries, allowing the French to maintain a birth rate that is much closer to the replacement rate of 2.1. The rate in Germany, by contrast, plunged below 1.5 in the early 1970s and has remained there ever since. (Incidentally, East Germany's birth rate was even lower than West Germany's before reunification.) Like their developed peers, the two countries are now aging, but the process is much more rapid in Germany, suggesting that France's population will exceed that of its large neighbor in the decades to come.
By 2050, the population figures for the two European giants are expected to be near equal for the first time since 1871. France's current population is 67.2 million (versus 82.6 million in Germany), but in 32 years' time, the European Commission forecasts a population of 74.3 million for France and just 74.7 million for Germany. The date when France overtakes Germany for the first time since the Franco-Prussian War may still be more than three decades away, but the effects of these trends will have ramifications on the countries long before that. In addition to Germany's overall shrinkage, its population is also aging rapidly, a factor that will have a tremendous impact on its economic outlook. Older populations tend to work fewer hours as they age, while retirees not only contribute less to economic output, they also place more burdens on the state by requiring pensions and health care expenditures. Accordingly, the commission forecasts that France's potential growth will rise from 1.2 percent in 2020 to 1.8 percent in 2035, whereas Germany is projected to fall from 1.2 percent to 0.8 percent over the same period. Ultimately, France is likely to surpass Germany in gross domestic product long before overtaking it in population.
Growing Old Together
Together, these developments have important implications at both the national and European level. In terms of the former, Germany faces a future characterized by smaller economic output and higher spending requirements. In response, Berlin could increase immigration — the 2015 migration crisis already provided a dry run for such a policy, as more than 1 million people (well over double the average) arrived that year. The influx, however, not only failed to improve the country's long-term economic forecasts, but it also ignited a backlash that propelled the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party into third place in the most recent elections. Accordingly, Germany's political leaders will remain wary of the forces immigration can unleash.
Against this backdrop, Berlin has focused on building a sustainable platform on which to combat the future's challenges by balancing the books (Germany's budget surplus in 2016 was the highest since 1990) and reducing public debt (now 68.3 percent of GDP, compared with France's 96.5 percent and Italy's 132 percent). And thanks to the current account surpluses provided by Germany's export model, Berlin has accrued many assets over the past two decades, resulting in a net international investment surplus that is the world's second largest after Japan — another great aging economy. While some international commentators have deplored the ostensible unfairness of Germany's "beggar thy neighbor" economic policies, the country has given itself a head start in the battle against the deleterious effects of a shrinking, aging population.
From an international perspective, the demographic shift will hand the center of European power back across the Rhine to France. But those worried about another major war engulfing Europe need not worry: Given their aging populations and intertwined history since 1945, neither France nor Germany will be the young and vibrant "coming power" determined to fulfill its destiny — with disastrous consequences for the Continent at large.
Ultimately, the wider effects of France's coming demographic advantage over Germany will leave their mark on the European Union — should it survive itself. Within the union, economic clout translates into influence, and the rise of France, as the leader of a group that includes Spain, Italy and Portugal, will provide a platform for Mediterranean voices to demand greater protectionism and other causes. Instead of the fiscal discipline of the Germanic model holding sway in Brussels, the Continent's future will be marked by looser monetary policies — as well as the weaker currency and episodes of inflation that are part and parcel of them.