French government eyes 'le baby boom'
Wednesday, 29 March 2006
In the latest in our series about motherhood and the role of the state
in encouraging couples to have more children, Hugh Schofield in Paris
reflects on efforts made by successive French governments to ensure women
give birth to more and more children.
When people ask why I decided to settle in France six years ago, one of my answers is that it is easier to bring up a family here. Because it's true.
With three children, my wife Rebecca and I give over an annual sum to the government that is so low British friends reel in disbelief (though it is also true that income levels are much lower here than in the UK).
A further incentive is the monthly allowance of some £180 for families with three children, which rises when they reach 11.
There is the famous carte famille nombreuse (large family card), which brings us 30% reductions on trains and half-price on the metro, and the carte Paris-famille which gives us free entrance to swimming-pools and other amenities, as well as about £150 a year towards extra-curricular arts and sports.
And there is the tax deduction for home help, which makes it easier for Rebecca to work. We have a lady to help once a week, and some of the money gets written off our tax bill.
State nursery schools take children from the age of three, and for toddlers there is an extensive - if not quite comprehensive - system of crèches. Later, if you want to put your children into the private system, the nationwide network of Roman Catholic church schools costs about a tenth of what a British public school charges.
With all this, it is maybe not surprising that France is managing to buck the trend of European depopulation. With a fertility rate of 1.916, it is second only to Ireland in the birth stakes and, unlike many countries, its population is growing strongly.
According to recent government figures, France's population should reach 75 million (from 62 million today) by the middle of the century, in the process overtaking Germany - whose numbers the UN says will fall from 82 million to 70.8 million in 2050.
Women in the workforce
What is particularly gratifying to French planners is that the bulk of the current population increase - put at 0.68% a year - is caused by home-grown births and only a quarter to immigration.
Throughout its modern history France has been obsessed about population levels. Experts have established that around the time of the revolution, French mothers stopped breeding - no one knows why - and a population that had been the largest in Europe fell during the 19th century behind Britain and the emerging Germany.
The massive loss of life in World War I helped spread the conviction that national survival was linked to numbers.
Today, French governments of left and right put the "family" high in their election manifestos, and every year there is a much-publicised Conference on the Family, attended by the prime minister, parents and campaigning groups.
At last year's event, prime minister Dominique de Villepin outlined new incentives to encourage two-child families to move on to a third.
Until now, there has been a pay-out of £345 a month for mothers (or occasionally fathers) to take time off for up to three years for a third child. Under the new measures they have the option of taking a bigger pay-out of £508 for just one year - the idea being to win over women who were reluctant for financial or professional reasons to stop work.
On top of that, tax-credit for hiring child-minders is being doubled, and the carte famille nombreuse is being extended to cover museum entrance fees and other leisure activities.
It's almost worth thinking about having a fourth.