Depopulation and French mothers

Depopulation and French mothers

  • The Peace Loan.

    LEBASQUE Henri (1865 - 1937)

  • National Day of Mothers of Large Families.

  • Injustice! At equal pay, unequal standard of living.


© Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais

National Day of Mothers of Large Families.

© Contemporary Collections

Injustice! At equal pay, unequal standard of living.

© Contemporary Collections

Publication date: May 2011

Historical context

Depopulation aggravated by the war

Since France completed its demographic transition, early compared to the rest of Europe, its low natural increase (0.4%) requires the use of immigration as a labor force and continues to worry politicians. and public opinion. At the end of the Great Depression, on August 22, 1896, Dr. Jacques Bertillon founded the National Alliance for the Increase of the French Population, which actively campaigned to put the country back on the path to birth.

In 1900, France had only 39 million inhabitants, far behind Russia (160) or Germany (56), followed by Great Britain. The Great War, with its 1.4 million French deaths - including 20% ​​of men aged seventeen to twenty-four - led to a deficit of births and marriages heavy with consequences. In the aftermath of the war, Henri Lebasque (1865-1937), a "fauve" painter in the armies during the war, was inspired by the now traditional format of war loans to offer an image of peace in the midst of reconstruction. Metropolitan France has only 40 million inhabitants, the menacing Germany more than 70 million, younger.

Image Analysis

The mother at the center of attention

The Peace Loan juxtaposes two worlds marked one, in the foreground, by the green tone enhanced with pink of a plant space populated by female figures, the other, in the second and third planes, by the gray-tinted white of a mineral space where male silhouettes work. The vertical elements - tree, building, scaffolding, factory chimneys - follow one another along a diagonal which rises slightly to the right and counterpoint to the horizontality of the land, the water, the boats, animals used in agriculture and the infant in the lap of his mother. The gaze is drawn to the woman who is breastfeeding this newborn baby, quite carnal, her head tilted in a peaceful and caring manner, while her daughter reads.

The poster for the National Day of Mothers of Large Families plays on the frontality of the scene represented and the frame formed by three blocks of text, the typography and size of which vary. Placed under the title, the mention "Under the High Patronage of the President of the Republic" indicates that the Head of State, guarantor of the institutions, supports this rebirth operation symbolized by the orange sun in the background. A mother, standing, wearing a dress that does not betray her social origin, holds her youngest child at arm's length; the five children around him, aged between one and six, lift their eyes and stretch out their arms towards him, in a revival of the Christian pictorial tradition.

More didactic in its management of poster space, Injustice! At equal pay unequal standard of living uses capital letters for the keywords and exploits the three primary colors: yellow for the frame and the decor wall, red for the details denoting the comfort of the interior and for the most important words of the slogans, blue for male characters and demonstrative speech. This is based on the staggering of the four sketches along a red descending curve, which energizes fairly static situations. The character of the father, an employee, fades away as the children take over the space and take over the table; the eldest becomes a housewife and helps her mother; from a chandelier, the luminaire becomes a simple ceiling lamp, while the size, quantity and quality of the food, the tablecloth and the seats decline.


Contribute for the national future

The Peace Loan follows a series of government loans throughout the conflict, which sparked widespread press campaigns. The poster includes the gender partition, applied here to reproduction (birth rate) and reconstruction (activity). The graphic treatment is strongly reminiscent of the style of the 1910s, making the war a parenthesis to be forgotten. However, the demobilization of millions of men including 600,000 invalids poses a serious economic problem. Women are excluded from the sphere of production where, by force of circumstances, they were present en masse during the war.

This underlying theme is at the heart of the discourse affirmed by the National Alliance against depopulation (name taken in 1922), recognized as being of public utility when the government instituted a Higher Birth Council and a law of 1920 condemns all advertising for abortion or contraception. The various arguments of the first day in honor of mothers repeat the clichés of the war mobilization: honor to those who fight (on the birth rate), national solidarity and final victory. The collection of May 9, 1920 was a huge success, which for a time overshadowed the women's struggle for civic equality.

At the end of the 1930s, when the outbreak of the war was almost no longer in doubt, Pic was inspired by didactic imagery which constantly called upon, at school, at work and in the street, the reasoning of French. The image does not play on any emotion, but favors a rationality that relies on the effect of evidence, point by point comparison. "French vitality" is at an all-time low, it is accused, due to official carelessness which is content to "compensate" when it comes to planning. The fight to which this poster invites, which is addressed to civil servants rather than workers or peasants, goes beyond the social issue. Without appealing to the rhetoric of the New Man, one can only imagine that at the same time, a Nazi Germany already more populated (and armed) favors a high birth rate.

In all three images, the woman occupies a traditional role of mother of the family and guardian of the household, the national or family economy depending entirely on the man. However, women express new social aspirations in contradiction with the moral and political repression of female emancipation and the dominant discourse of the natalists.

  • demography
  • family


Dominique BORNE and Henri DUBIEF, The Crisis of the 1930s, 1929-1938, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. “Points Histoire”, 1989.Virginie de LUCA BARRUSSE, Les Familles Many.Une demographic question, a political issue.France (1880-1939), Rennes, P.U.R., coll. “Histoire”, 2008. François THÉBAUD, “The natalist movement in France during the interwar period: the national alliance for the increase of the French population”, in Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporain, no 32 -2, 1985.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "Depopulation and French mothers"