* Growing population cited as strong point of French economy
* Growth rate dips below replacement rate in 2013 - INSEE
PARIS Jan 14 France's birth rate fell under the symbolically important bar of two children per woman and the country saw its lowest population growth in a decade in 2013, data showed on Tuesday in a blow to one of its economic strengths.
The population reached 66 million inhabitants on Jan. 1 2014, up by 280,000 residents or 0.4 percent from the previous year. That was its weakest growth rate since 2000, a census by the INSEE statistics office showed.
The total fertility rate (TFR) fell to 1.99 children per woman in 2013 from 2.01 in 2012 and 2.03 in 2010. A rate of 2.1 children per woman is considered necessary to keep the population growing excluding migration.
While France remains the second most fertile nation in the European Union after Ireland, which had a TFR of 2.05 in 2011, the drop suggests that Europe's number two economy may be losing what has long been seen as a key strength.
Unlike EU economic powerhouse Germany, whose economy is heavily oriented toward exports, the French model has long emphasised domestic consumption supported by strong population growth as the main driver of its economy.
Pro-fertility policies such as free post-natal care, subsidised daycare, allowances for each child born and discounts on a range of services for large families have held up steady population growth in the post-war period.
But a fall in births, coupled with a rise in deaths, hints that France may be converging with more moderate growth rates like that of Britain, with a TFR of 1.98 in 2011, though it remains above fast shrinking countries like Hungary and Poland.
Unemployment stuck around 11 percent and high taxes hit household budgets hard in the past year, squeezing spending. Households' real gross disposable income fell 0.1 percent in the third quarter of 2013, data showed.
INSEE said an increase in the number of women over 40 years old had contributed to a drop in births, which fell to 810,000 in 2013, down 11,000 from 2012, while the number of deaths had risen slightly to 572,000, INSEE said.
Both Italy and Germany - with respective TFRs of 1.41 and 1.36 in 2011 - are grappling with population decline that is seen dragging on their economies as smaller workforces struggle to support larger numbers of inactive pensioners.
France is currently Europe's second most populous nation after Germany, whose 2012 population of around 82 million inhabitants is projected to fall to just over 70 million by 2050, below France and Britain. Economists say the drop is already taking an economic toll.
The life expectancy of French women rose to 85 years, up 2.1 years in the past decade, while it rose to 78.7 years for men, up 2.9 years in the same period. (Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur and Marine Pennetier; editing by Mark John)