Majority of French children born to unwed mothers

PARIS (Reuters) - More children were born out of wedlock in France than to married parents for the first time in 2006, census data showed on Tuesday, in a sign the traditionally Catholic country has moved further from older social mores.

With most financial incentives for marriage gone, and as parenthood among unwed couples becomes more socially acceptable, the proportion of children born outside marriage has grown steadily, the national statistics office INSEE said.

“They have clearly increased compared to the previous year, to 50.5 percent of all births compared to 48.4 percent, and they have become the majority for the first time,” INSEE said in its yearly census report.

Given the rising trend from under 40 percent ten years ago, INSEE said births outside marriage would likely increase.

“Everything is going in that direction, although I think it will eventually stabilize,” said Guy Desplanques, head of INSEE’s demography department.

“(Marriage) is now seen more as a celebration held to bring together family and friends, and less a necessary institution, especially given the growth of civil unions,” Desplanques added.

France created a civil union statute called the PACS in 1999 as a way to offer non-married couples legal status similar to that of marriage. Over 350,000 couples have entered into a “civil solidarity pact” since.

Although initially attacked by the right and the Catholic Church because it was open to homosexuals, who lobbied for it, the data showed PACS surged in popularity among heterosexuals.

“In the first three quarters of 2007, close to 73,000 were signed, that is to say almost the same amount for all of 2006.”

INSEE said the proportion of homosexuals entering into a PACS fell to 7 percent in 2006 from 25 percent in 2002.

Census data also showed births drove France’s population growth more in 2007 than in previous years, when immigration had boosted figures.

France’s estimated overall population rose to 63.753 million by January 1, 2008, an increase of 361,000 from the same period a year earlier. But only 71,000 came from immigration compared to 91,000 the year before.

France has one of the highest birth rates in the European Union, and economists have in the past said this was helped by the arrival of legal and illegal immigrants. (Reporting by Brian Rohan; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)