By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
When Staub became pregnant with twins last year, the family moved out of their cramped apartment in suburban Paris and into a renovated stone farmhouse with massive plate-glass windows and exposed wood beam ceilings in Jumeauville, which translates in English as Twin City.
Staub, a slender woman with an animated face framed by honey-colored hair that brushes her shoulders, took a year off from her job at SFR, a major cellphone company, collecting monthly maternity leave benefits and a guarantee that her job would be waiting for her when she returned.
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."
A colleague at Staub's company, Axelle de Barbeyrac, 35, also has four children, including twins. She works four days a week, a part-time schedule that she can continue, with government subsidies, until the twins are 3 next year.
She lives in the Paris suburb of Ville d'Avray, a 10-minute train ride west of the La Defense high-technology, high-rise corridor on the edge of the capital where both women work. Barbeyrac catches the 5:09 p.m. train home, walks to the government-subsidized day-care center where her 2 1/2 -year-old twins have spent the day ($670 a month for both), then picks up Ines, 8, and Feh, 6, at the after-school program that ends at 6 p.m. ($75 a month for the two).
As she arrives home to begin the four-child assembly line in the bathtub, the sidewalks around her cream-colored stucco house are crowded with schoolchildren on scooters and mothers pushing a stroller with one hand and gripping a toddler with the other.
"I don't know if the French system encourages women to have more children," said Barbeyrac, whose husband is a documentary filmmaker. "But people don't stop having children because of money concerns."
Maylis Staub agrees. Staub, who is married to a lawyer, returned to work in August. Instead of using the government-supported day-care centers, she hired a nanny -- subsidized by tax breaks on part of the nanny's salary -- to care for her 10-month-old twins, Quitterie and Hermine.
When both women's twins reach 3 years of age, they will qualify for the free government preschool programs that most French children attend until kindergarten.
"The child-care system in France is very well thought out," said Staub, sitting on a sofa on a recent Saturday afternoon with feverish 8-year-old Margaux on one side, fidgety 6-year-old Jules on the other, and one of the twins on her lap. "Everything is organized to make mothers' lives easier."
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.
Staub's pediatrician makes house calls when her children are sick or need checkups, a practice common in rural and urban areas.
"Society evolves quickly and also makes life easier for working mothers," Staub said.
"I refuse to go shopping on weekends, and waste our family time on that. I order everything on the Internet and have it delivered at home."
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.