Middle-class mothers in France could be paid up to US$1,220 a month -- almost the minimum wage -- to stop work for a year and have a third child under a government scheme to boost the birthrate, already among the highest in Europe.
Despite female employment statistics that are the envy of the continent, the government remains worried about the reluctance of better-educated women to have babies. A plan scheduled to be unveiled by Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin yesterday is expected to double an existing cash incentive for big families.
In a Europe facing serious demographic decline, France's buoyant birthrate of 1.9 children a woman is well above the average of 1.4 and surpassed only by Ireland. France can also boast one of the EU's highest rates of female employment: 81 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 49 are in work, including 75 percent of those with two children -- and 51 percent of those with more than two.
But a recent report by Hubert Brin, the head of the National Union of Family Associations, warned that even France's high birthrate would not prevent the population shrinking. One of the problems is that middle-class and professional women are postponing the age at which they start a family -- last year's average was 29.6 -- and spacing out their pregnancies, now nearly four years between the first and second child. As a result, fewer women will have more than two children.
The government hopes to reverse the downtrend by raising an existing US$625 monthly grant, the allowance paid to mothers who put their jobs on hold to raise a second or third child.
The grant will be available only for a third baby, and limited to one year. But it will be tied to the parent's salary, with an expected ceiling of US$1220. The French minimum wage is US$1,465 a month.
"The old deal only really attracted women in poorly paid work, not those with qualifications and competitive career jobs," said Dominique Meda, a leading social policy specialist. "This one could be that extra encouragement they need to take the plunge. It may even encourage some fathers to take a year off."
France's family policy, launched in the 1970s, aims to improve the country's birthrate and keep as many women in work as possible.
"The main point is that women here no longer stop working when they have children: the majority work, even those with three kids,"Meda said.
The French state aims to make it easy for working women to have children -- either by allowing them to take time off from their jobs without too much of a financial loss, or by providing cheap, high-quality childcare.
Maternity leave, on near full pay, ranges from 20 weeks for the first child to 40 or more for a third. A whole gamut of grants, allowances and tax breaks is available, increasing substantially once a family has three children: all French familles nombreuses get some US$366 in monthly allowances and travel as good as free on public transport.
At the same time, the network of state-run or state-approved creches -- for children from two months old -- has been expanded over the past decade or so, as has the number of state-registered childminders. Depending on the family's income, childcare costs from virtually nothing to around US$610 a month for the most well-off.
Nursery school from 8.30am to 4.30pm is free for every child from the age of three.