France, With the Continent's Highest Birthrate, Holds On to Its Social Welfare Program for New Moms

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 22, 2008

ALBI, France -- St├ęphanie Guiraud-Chaumeil was still in law school when her son Paul was born 14 years ago. Later came Valentine, a daughter now 10. Then Mathieu, 9, and finally little Louise, 7.

With four children to raise, and a doctor for a husband and provider, Guiraud-Chaumeil, 37, might have become a stay-at-home mother. Instead, she pursued her career, consulting on brand name and intellectual property rights. This spring, she took her professional life a step further. After a time-consuming campaign, she was elected to the city council of Albi, a medieval city 45 miles northeast of Toulouse in the softly rolling hills of southwestern France.

Supported by an elaborate and costly network of social welfare programs designed to promote childbearing, French women such as Guiraud-Chaumeil increasingly have found it possible to combine careers with motherhood. Largely as a result, France recently overtook Ireland as Europe's most fertile nation, with women having an average of more than two children each at a time when most of the continent is battling a declining birthrate and a graying population.

"If I had been obliged to choose between working and having children, I probably would have chosen children," Guiraud-Chaumeil said in an interview at city hall. "But I didn't have to choose."

The family-friendly measures -- including long maternity leaves, child-support payments, public schooling for toddlers and even nanny subsidies -- have become a heavy burden on the French budget as they have expanded over the years. They have grown increasingly expensive for businesses as well. But even in this time of financial crisis and economic slump, when deficits are growing and leaders are looking for cuts everywhere, no one in France, from the left or the right, has proposed reducing government expenditures to promote childbearing.

When the Socialist mayor of Lille, Martine Aubry, recently suggested that President Nicolas Sarkozy's government might consider a reduction in government spending on day-care centers for children younger than 3, conservative Education Minister Xavier Darcos responded, "That's an absurdity and a gross distortion of the truth."

His tart response reflected awareness of a long-standing political reality. Since the conservative Charles de Gaulle immediately after World War II embraced once-leftist social policies such as the 40-hour workweek and paid vacations, France has had broad political consensus on generous government benefits. Although the Socialists and other leftist parties have been identified more closely with pioneering such policies, extensive welfare programs have endured for generations under rightist as well as leftist governments.

Some of these programs have been criticized as restraints on the French economy as it seeks to modernize and become more competitive. But so many French people of all political persuasions have remained attached to their privileges -- and apparently willing to accept the competitive drawbacks and high taxes they entail -- that politicians are loath to propose abolishing them.

Sarkozy, a conservative in the Gaullist tradition, was elected on a slogan of breaking with the old system and "working more to earn more." But he found it politically impossible to mount a direct challenge to the 35-hour workweek instituted eight years ago under the Socialists, despite denouncing it as crippling to the economy.

Similarly, in seeking to reduce government expenditures as the economy grinds to a no-growth halt, he has not broached any cutbacks in the network of child-rearing subsidies, which would be even more politically sensitive. In addition, most French people traditionally have regarded a high birthrate as a promise of future economic growth and a guarantee against the imbalance between elderly retirees and active workers that threatens much of Europe.

"You couldn't imagine bringing up an end to this system in France," said Rachel Silvera, a specialist on women in the workplace at the University of Paris.

Southwestern France -- the country's most fertile region, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies-- has a particular tradition of big families. Catholicism has remained strong here.

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