Middle-class French women are to be offered cash incentives to have third babies amid growing concern that too few children are being born to professional couples.
Although France’s fertility rate of 1.9 for each couple is relatively high among European countries, family lobbyists are dismayed by a fall in the number of babies born to better-educated women.
The government will announce its proposals on Thursday when Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister and the father of three children, presides at a conference on family life. A big increase in allowances has been widely predicted.
France’s National Union of Family Associations (Unaf), which is playing a key role in shaping policy, says the figure should be set at up to £700 a month for women with three children, double the present maximum, and fixed according to the woman’s salary.
Despite the budgetary implications in a country that is already accused of living extravagantly beyond its means, the government agrees with the principle and is said to be finalising the details of a “very significant” initiative.
Given France’s egalitarian ideals, the notion of creating perks to attract professional mothers did not go down well with the socialist opposition.
Although class or racial issues have been side-stepped, there is also a suspicion on the Left that the ruling centre-Right regards the existing system as favouring those with little work ethic but living on hand-outs. Hubert Brin, the Unaf president, said yesterday: “The poor current level of compensation appeals only to those on lower incomes,”
“This is not just a French problem but affects Europe in general. In Germany, as many as 40 per cent of professional women turn their backs on maternity.
“Ask a professional woman these days to make a definitive choice between having a career and having babies and she’ll choose the former.
“Our proposals, which we hope will be accepted at least in part, reflect the need to maintain a balance in society.”
Parents with three children already benefit in a number of ways, including family allowances of £200 a month, a £200 annual contribution to out-of-school activity costs and generous reductions on train and bus fares.
There are plans to extend the “big family” advantage card beyond public transport to a range of other services.
At present, women are entitled to six months of maternity benefits for the first child and three years for the second.
The new allowance will last for a year and be available to any French mother who elects to have a third baby and stay at home. But Unaf says that linking it to her salary level will make it more attractive to high-fliers.
The one-year limit would be aimed at reducing pressure on social security spending and prevent women becoming detached from the world of work they leave to have families. Caps may also be placed on spending in other areas of family support.
Corinne Baconnet, 36, a Parisian vascular surgeon who is expecting her third child in a month’s time, said: “I do not think the government does enough to encourage women who want to have bigger families.
“It is obviously better if a mother can be with her child for the first part of his or her life so this idea is therefore a step in the right direction.
“I come from a family with three children and always wanted three of my own, but I am also from a generation of women for whom just staying at home was never an option.
“As a doctor, I am lucky in having my own practice and I can scale down work to fit with my maternal duties.
“But it will be more tempting for salaried professional women to know they can take time off, receive a reasonable allowance while not working and not be away from work for so long that they lose contact with their professional lives.”