Comparison of family growth and the timing of births in France and Britain calls for consideration of the role of family policy and women’s economic conditions in determining their demographic behaviour. The study relies on data from the Longitudinal Study of England and Wales and the Permanent Demographic Sample in France, that link birth registrations to 1971-1991 and 1968-1990 census data, respectively. Over the period studied, the 1970s through the 1990s, in Britain state intervention has been minimal, while France practised a generous family policy. In parallel, social polarization in fertility behaviour was larger in Britain, and differences in fertility between those women who leave the labour force and those who do not were larger still. In France, differences by socio-occupational group are observed only at third births, although by the second birth there is already an association between parity progression and having left the labour force as of the census observation. In France, almost all married women in managerial occupations become mothers, while in Britain one quarter of such women do not. Fertility in Britain is higher at all birth orders among those not in the labour force and in less-skilled occupations, while in France family policy tends to increase third births in those categories too.
Comparing women born in the 1950s to those born in the 1960s reveals that the postponement of marriage and fertility, appreciable in both countries, is more marked in France. Among married women, however, changes in fertility have been negligible. All other things being equal, the differences in fertility by socio-occupational group decrease in France, but not in Britain.