As Europe Grows Grayer, France Devises a Baby Boom
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
JUMEAUVILLE, France -- 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.
"The government favors families a lot," said Staub, 35, a project manager for a French cellphone company. "They understand that families are the future. It's great for us."
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.
But the propensity of women here to have more babies has little to do with notions of French romance or the population's formerly strong religious ties to the Roman Catholic Church.
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.
Most of the subsidies and allowances are income-based, giving low-income families the most help. But higher-income families also receive substantial benefits so that only a fraction of a working mother's salary goes to child-care costs.
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.