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 Thursday, 16 January, 2003, 11:28 GMT
France's new baby boom
De Froberville family
Big families pay no income tax and lower rents

French wines may have gone out of fashion - and the French football team may have gone out in the first round of the World Cup - but there's still one area where France is in a league of its own: making babies.

Extra leisure time means extra time to make more babies

While birth rates in the rest of Europe are in decline, French women are having more children every year.

The average number of children per woman is now 1.9.

Part of the reason for this may be cultural, but there are other important factors, including a financial one.

Added benefits

The French state classifies a couple with three or more children as a "famille nombreuse" a status which opens the door to all kinds of benefits.

Benoit De Froberville
Benoit De Froberville: The deal is pretty good
Take father of four, Benoit De Froberville. He lives with his wife, Nicole, and their children - Gonzague, Solene, Armelle and Aurore - in the central French town of Tours.

Although Benoit is a banker, he doesn't pay a euro in income tax, has government help with his rent and a 40% reduction on train fares.

Nicole, meanwhile, has spent the past six years on state-funded parental leave and is guaranteed her job back when she wants.

"Of course we don't have children to make money", Benoit jokes, "but the deal is pretty good. I think other Europeans are looking at us and thinking that this is a good way."

His wife believes that another important factor is France's 35-hour working week.

"My husband has plenty of free time to spend with the children - it means he can enjoy their company and wants to have more of them," Nicole says.

"It's totally different to a father who only sees his kids in the evening or at the weekends when all he wants to do is rest."

She didn't say it, although others have, but extra leisure time also means extra time to make more babies.

Nurse shortage

But there is a flip side to this combined baby and leisure boom, as I discovered at the Saint Vincent De Paul Hospital in Paris.

The more children that are born, the better it is for our pension system and for our economy, in general

Christian Jacob, French Family Minister
The head of the maternity unit there, Professor Michel Tournaire, showed me a ward, devoid of both patients and beds.

It's a strange and worrying development, at a time when more and more women are waiting to give birth.

The problem, as the professor sees it, is simple. The shorter working week has led to a shortage of nurses.

The state is feeling the strain in other areas.

Baby
The babies of today are tax payers of tomorrow
The logical consequence of the baby boom is a school children boom.

It means that nursery and primary schools now find themselves having to cope with far greater classroom numbers than expected.

So will France's right-wing government, which promised a leaner, more efficient economy when it came to power last year, be cutting back on benefits and calling for couples to tone down their reproductive zeal?

Not a bit of it. Not only does the administration pride itself on being family-friendly, but its Family Minister, Christian Jacob, wants to encourage an even higher birth rate.

"Of course the state must step in and help" he says.

"The more children that are born, the better it is for our pension system and for our economy, in general".

And so the baby boomers of today are the tax payers and consumers of tomorrow.

France hopes that investing in them now will pay dividends.

See also:

30 Jul 02 | Europe
03 Jan 03 | Health
12 Oct 01 | Europe
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