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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2007, 17:59 GMT
France claims EU fertility crown
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

Segolene Royal with baby
Would-be president Segolene Royal has championed mothers' rights
France says it has now probably overtaken Ireland as Europe's most fertile country, with French women having an average of two children each.

Irish women have 1.9 children each, with the European average at 1.5.

The French birth rate has been growing steadily and has reached its highest level for 25 years.

Three-quarters of France's population growth comes from births, the rest from immigration. The population has now reached 63 million.

Children of immigrants account for 20% of new births. France's surging fertility makes it a rarity in Europe, where the overall trend is towards lower birth rates.

The strong French birth rate is evident even on the streets of the capital, where it is not unusual to see a woman pushing a pram while trying to control another child or two.

Cheap childcare

The growth in the birth rate here over the past 25 years may well be thanks to successive governments' family-friendly policies.

The French state tries to make it easy for women to work and have children, rather than having to choose between the two.

Most French women can take time off from their jobs without too much financial loss, while childcare is cheap and generally good.

Maternity leave, on almost full pay, ranges from 20 weeks for the first child to 40 weeks or more for the third child - with most employers bound by law to keep the mothers' jobs open for their return.

Those with large families of three children or more are even better rewarded.

Grants, allowances and tax breaks increase substantially after the third child, with monthly government cheques, free public transport and a host of other benefits.

Free nurseries

Recently, the French government even increased a special one-year allowance to 1,000 euros (659) a month paid to mothers who give up work for the year in order to have their third child.

At the same time, the number of state or private creches for children from the age of two months old has expanded, as has the number of state-registered child minders.

Depending on income, childcare is either virtually free or can cost up to a maximum of some 500 euros a month. Nursery school is free for every child from the age of three.

Yet at the same time, France can still boast one of Europe's highest rates of female employment.

Some 81% of women aged between 25 and 49 are in work, including three-quarters of those with two children.

The French government could be forgiven for feeling a little smug today.

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