Washington Post, Molly Moore, Oct. 18, 2006
When the municipal day-care center ran out of space because of a local baby boom, the town government gave Maylis Staub and her husband $200 a month to defray the cost of a “maternal assistant” to care for their two children.
When Staub delivered twins last December — her third and fourth children — the nation not only increased their tax deductions and child allowances, the government-owned French train system offered 40 percent discounts off tickets for the parents and the children until they reach their 18th birthdays.
While falling birthrates threaten to undermine economies and social stability across much of an aging Europe, French fertility rates are increasing. France now has the second-highest fertility rate in Europe — 1.94 children born per woman, exceeded slightly by Ireland’s rate of 1.99. The U.S. fertility rate is 2.01 children.
In many European countries, park benches are filled with elderly residents. In France, parks overflow with boisterous children, making it an international model for countries struggling with the threat of zero population growth. In recent months, officials from Japan, Thailand and neighboring Germany have traveled to France to study its reproductive secrets.
France heavily subsidizes children and families from pregnancy to young adulthood with liberal maternity leaves and part-time work laws for women. The government also covers some child-care costs of toddlers up to 3 years old and offers free child-care centers from age 3 to kindergarten, in addition to tax breaks and discounts on transportation, cultural events and shopping.
This summer, the government — concerned that French women still were not producing enough children to guarantee a full replacement generation — very publicly urged French women to have even more babies. A new law provides greater maternity leave benefits, tax credits and other incentives for families who have a third child. During a year-long leave after the birth of the third child, mothers will receive $960 a month from the government, twice the allowance for the second child.
A century ago, France was one of the first European countries to face a declining population. Since then, almost every elected French government — regardless of party — has instituted laws that encourage bigger families and make it easier for women to keep their jobs while raising children.
“Politicians realized they had to encourage people to have more babies if they didn’t want to live in a country of old people,” said France Prioux, director of research for France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies.
In Jumeauville, a rural hamlet of picturesque stone houses and about 500 inhabitants a 45-minute drive west of Paris, the Staubs are part of a trend most European countries crave to emulate: expanding families fleeing the cities and suburbs in search of larger houses and gardens, helping to replenish the village’s declining and aging population of farmers.
Under French law, a woman can opt not to work or to work part time until her child is 3 years old — and her full-time job will be guaranteed when she returns. “In other countries, maternity leaves are seen as a handicap for mothers who want to have a career,” Staub said. “It’s different in France.”
‘Work and children’
The French system also fosters different attitudes about working mothers. French working moms say they feel far less guilt than friends in the United States or Europe because French society recognizes children are well cared-for while mothers are at work.
As a result, French women are not only having more children than their European counterparts, but far more of them work outside the home than in most European countries. Three-fourths of all French mothers with at least two children are employed.
“In Mediterranean countries and Germany, it’s work or children,” said Marie-Therese Letablier, research director of the Center for Employment Studies. “In France, it’s work and children.”
“French society encourages mothers to work,” Staub said. “The way work hours and vacation time are organized also helps families a lot. I have 36 days of paid holidays per year — it’s great to spend time with your children.”
In the summer, French families can send their children to generous summer camp programs. Government recreation centers in virtually every French village and urban neighborhood offer a full day of activities, including trips to museums, farms and swimming pools — along with snacks and three-course lunch — for fees ranging from about 65 cents to $12 a day, based on family income.
At the same time, private French firms and services also cater to big families with working parents.