Why do French women have more babies?

While a ‘baby recession’ has hit Europe along with an economic slump, France is bucking the trend with the highest birth rate on the continent. The government has been forced to cut back family benefits, but even that is unlikely to stop the trend.

Photo: AFP

Julie is up at the crack of dawn.

A frantic day, packed with diapers and court appointments, has just begun. The 34-year-old attorney is the mother of 2-year-old Milan and 6-month-old Martin. After the feeding and dressing rituals of the morning, she drops the boys off at a part-time nursery school. She then rushes either to meet clients at the courthouse or the police station, or to the small practice she opened by herself two months ago in the town of Tourves, about 45 minutes north of Marseille.

She never takes a lunch break. That small sacrifice allows her to pick up Milan and Martin around 4:30pm and enjoy some playtime before preparing dinner. When the kids are finally sleeping peacefully, the young lawyer can get down to tackling the housework.

Julie’s case is fairly typical in France in as much as her children are in enrolled in some form of long-term childcare, even when they are a few months old.

That is not the case of her peers in the rest of Europe. Even in Scandinavian countries that spend comparable amounts on social programmes aimed at families and children – in France about 4% of GDP – kids usually stay home longer. But many French toddlers “graduate” from a part- or full-time nursery school, or home-based care with a nanny, to start public pre-school as early as 3.

While Julie admits that she would have enjoyed more time at home with her kids after they were born, she says that quitting her job, or even putting it on pause for any extended period, was out of the question. “My job is vital to me. I need to exist as a person outside my couple and my family,” she explained.

Amy, an expat from New Zealand and an aspiring novelist living in the Parisian suburbs, is another case in point. While some of the bureaucracy has been a burden since she moved to France 18 months ago, she has been happily surprised by how accessible childcare is for Louis, 2, and Elena, 1.

“Since coming to France I am much more focused and productive in my writing. Next year Louis will be in pre-school and Elena at the nursery, and I am really looking forward to it... In New Zealand, Louis would not be going to school for another two years,” she said.

Widening childcare, despite cutbacks

However, France’s generous family welfare policies, which include a diverse network of childcare options, cash stipends, tax breaks and other help, are now the target of cutbacks as France joins states across Europe in seeking to scale back budgets.

The latest reforms are the result of difficult choices, President François Hollande, a Socialist, said last week. His government has made plans to reduce child tax credits and lower childcare rebates. The measures will affect about 12% of families in France, according to the government, and save the government 1.3 billion euros by next year.

The upside for families is that the government will not touch direct cash transfers for households counting two children or more, regardless of income levels. It also plans to create as many as 275,000 additional openings for early-age childcare, within institutions and home-stay options.

The new measures fly in the face of Hollande’s recent pledge not to raise income taxes, and made him an easy target of opponents. But the president has insisted that reforming the system, by asking higher-earners to carry a heavier tax burden, is the only way to save it. The branch of France’s welfare system dedicated to families was 2.5 billion euros over-budget last year.

France’s trend-busting birth rate

National statistics do not lend credit to romanticised notions that French women are slim disciplinarians, as argued in best-selling books like "French Women Don’t Get Fat" and "French Children Don’t Throw Food". But they do reveal this: French women have more babies than women in other industrialised countries, especially when times are rough.


Fertility rates - Number of children born to women

  2007 2011 Belgium 1.82 1.81 France 1.96 2.01 Germany 1.37 1.36 Iceland 2.09 2.02 Spain 1.39 1.36 UK 1.90 1.96 US 2.12 1.89

Source: Eurostat

In March of this year, France’s national demographic statistics agency INED said it had observed a “surprising” trend. While birth rates had dropped noticeably across the board in Europe and North America following the financial crisis starting in 2008, fertility in France has remained stable.

On average, French women had 2.01 children in 2012, according to the most recent data. That means France now has a higher fertility rate than the United States, which traditionally has higher birth rates. As far back as 2000, France boasted higher birth rates than Germany and Britain. That remains true today, even as those economies appear to be recovering faster from the global recession.

According to INED’s Olivier Thévenon, an expert in populations and social programmes, France’s family welfare system goes a long way in explaining the trend. When studying long-term trends associated with high fertility, he said two important factors had been identified: welfare programmes that include the availability of long-term care for children under 3 years old and regular cash transfers to families with children.

The single-child deterrent

In fact, family allowances in France only start with the second child, with the amount of the monthly stipends increasing with the number of children.

The French government’s recent reforms, Thévanon said, are therefore likely to reinforce the high-birth trend, since it is investing in widening childcare and saving family allowances from the chopping block. This is not the case in Britain, which has seen deep cuts in allowances.

They are also likely to help French women stay in the marketplace, according to Thévanon. “These policies are the main drivers in helping women combine family and work,” he noted.

This might be of little consolation to French women who are already unemployed and looking for work. While figures show that Britain and Germany have turned a corner on unemployment – for both men and women – France’s jobless rate has continued to climb, reaching a 15-year high this year.

According to Angelica Salvi del Pero, a researcher with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the latest data does not show French women are faring better in terms of employment than their European counterparts. It only shows that they are not giving up their plans to raise a family.

Family 2.0

Asked if they would consider having a third child, both Julie the lawyer and the Amy the writer say no, but explain their decision has less to do with finances – or the reforms – than personal lifestyle choices.

Julie admits to being disappointed with France’s family welfare system even if she supports it. Her household income excludes her from any subsidies for the nursery school and she struggled with the administrative paperwork to register for family allowances.

“I don’t want to complain, but we contribute quite a bit of our salaries and see little in return,” Julie, who considers hers a middle-class family and continues to benefit from tax breaks and an allowance, lamented.

But that is not the reason she and her partner are stopping at two kids. Julie says she is already pulled in too many directions and misses “precious” time with her children. Dividing her attention with yet another person seems a step too far. She is not concerned about Hollande’s new reforms.

France’s population seems to have reached a healthy balance by giving women more options: to raise families and build careers at the same time. If the country can get back to economic growth, its family policies could be a model for European neighbours struggling with quickly-aging and even shrinking populations.

And French women can continue to be the envy of the world, for the right reasons.


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