We had a visit today from the local census taker, having been warned a couple of weeks ago that this was imminent. This happens every five years in a small commune like ours (more on this below). But did you know that the first national census in France, or recensement, dates back to 1328?
A bit of history (comme d’habitude)
The primary function of that first census was to find out how many people there were for taxation purposes. They counted the number of feux or foyers (hearths) – a proxy for the number of people if you multiply it by a certain number of inhabitants per household.
They came up with a population of about 16 to 17 million. But 20 years later, the population was devastated by the plague and may have been reduced by two-thirds or more in parts of France. People were more concerned with surviving than with counting the population.
It’s difficult to know how accurate the first census was. Tax-dodging has always been a national sport and the inhabitants of rural France were notoriously hostile to outsiders. As late as the 18th century, a young surveyor for the Cassini map was murdered in the Cevennes, where they suspected he was a government spy.
Very few general censuses were carried out before the Revolution. The first systematic, comprehensive census took place in 1801 and thereafter every five years until 1946. However, the cost was too great and the administration too unwieldy, so successive governments spaced them out.
The last two general censuses took place in 1990 and 1999. But the interval was too wide: the population evolved significantly in between. So a new method was introduced in 2004. Now, the census is carried out every year but covers one-fifth of communes under 10,000 inhabitants and a representative cross-section in the bigger communes. So the total population is just about covered over the course of five years.
Nowadays, the information is collected for economic reasons (or so we are told) as well as simply for head-counting. You have to fill in a form detailing your age, profession, academic qualifications, surface area of house and number of rooms, whether you are a home-owner, what mode of transport you use and various other data.
All this goes back to L’Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE), which analyses it in detail and reports on demographic trends, etc.
We recognised the lady who came round today as a conseillère municipale (local councillor). I presume several of them must be doing it, since the commune covers a big area, with many lieux dits (localities). She was mightily relieved that we speak French well. Things have changed in the past couple of decades, and a lot of Anglophones have moved in, so she now carries an explanatory booklet in English.
As for our own commune, Caylus, a look at its demographic history reveals the typical historical picture of a rural French village. From a peak of 5,424 inhabitants in 1836, the population halved in the 50 years between 1896 and 1946, owing to rural depopulation. It reached a low point of 1,314 in 1990. Since then, it has risen slowly to 1,531 in 2006. But the chances of the population increasing to its heyday peak are non-existent.
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