Globe and Mail

Two nations divided along family line

French policies tend to support working women while German programs are geared to stay-at-home mothers

European Bureau
Friday, September 17, 1999

Asnières-sur-Seine, France -- Family Matters will run through to Saturday. It will be followed each Friday with a full page tracking the lives of Canadian families in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, as well as examining other family issues.
The series will be posted daily on: We invite readers to post their answers to this question:
How is this generation of parents and children doing?

It's just after 6 p.m. and Caroline Périard-Maury is picking up her two girls, two-year-old Valentine and five-month-old Melitza, from their babysitter's apartment.

Danielle Benoît, an energetic 51-year-old woman, takes care of the two sisters as well as an 18-month-old boy at her eighth-floor apartment in this Paris suburb five days a week, from 8 a.m. to as late as 6:30 p.m. She feeds them, takes them out to play, supervises their naps and changes their diapers as their parents are at work.

It's the kind of childcare arrangement that plenty of Canadian families live with daily.

The difference is that Ms. Benoît, known to her young charges as "Tata Bidou," is a municipal employee. She is one of 65 women employed by the City of Asnières-sur-Seine to provide babysitting services at their homes as an adjunct to the town's 10 municipally operated daycare centres.

For parents like Ms. Périard-Maury, a 35-year-old Canadian who has been living in France for six years, and her French computer-programmer husband, Philippe Maury, it's an ideal arrangement that combines the warmth of an individual babysitter with the supervised environment of an institututional daycare environment.

"The family daycare system is very reassuring. It's well controlled. The caregivers have to take first-aid courses," Ms. Périard-Maury said. "If the nanny is sick or something happens, it's the city's responsibility to find a place for the children elsewhere."

Municipal daycare, heavily subsidized and geared to income, is just one of more than 20 different programs provided for families in France. Benefits include universal family allowances, generous tax breaks, special back-to-school cash payments, subsidies for mothers who decide to stay home and free schooling for all children over the age of 3.

But the French approach is far from the norm in Europe, where governments have widely divergent views on how best to help families. In Britain, families are considered a private affair where the state intervenes primarily to help poor and lone-parent families. In the Netherlands, the emphasis is on encouraging part-time employment for women.

In Germany, the emphasis is different again. Like France, Germany provides generous family allowances and other programs, but while the French support working mothers, German programs are geared to stay-at-home mothers. Even the tax system favours single-family earners. Couples can split their household income, which reduces the tax burden on families, particularly when there is one breadwinner with a high income.

And more important, the system of daycare centres and schools is not adapted for families in which both parents work. Primary school children are expected to go home for lunch and classes often finish by noon or 1 p.m.

In Canada, except in Quebec, there is a search on for a better family-policy model and an intense scrutiny of what's going on in Europe.

As governments debate drafting a children's budget for the year 2000, duelling philosophies about whether women ought to be at home (after the German model) or at work (after the French one) are jockeying to set the course.

Christina Ciszek, the mother of a six-year-old boy, always dreaded the reaction she used to get when she would arrive at her local "kindergarten" in Berlin a few minutes beyond the scheduled 4 p.m. closing time to pick up her son.

The kindergarten workers would wonder where she had been and what she had been doing. When she responded that she was working, they would mumble about her not being a fit mother. She would sometimes have to pay a fine for arriving late.

"I once had to go to the manger of the kindergarten to explain myself," said Ms. Ciszek, who works part-time as an editorial assistant for an Italian newspaper.

"The problem in Germany is that society expects mothers to be slaves to their children," she complained. "I have the impression that they want women to stay at home because it reduces the unemployment rate."

Typically, kindergartens, which are more like nursery schools than daycare centres, operate from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. It is assumed that mothers are at home. "If you work and you don't have somebody to take care of the child at lunch, you have a real problem," Ms. Lyroudias said.

It doesn't get any better in primary school, with its abbreviated day and the habit of German schools to send children home without notice if a teacher is absent.

Antiopy Lyroudias, a mother of three children who is a native of France but lives in Stuttgart, said the system is a reflection of deeply conservative German values. "It's looked down upon to work when you have young children. They call you a rabenmutter [unnatural mother] if you do work," she said.

In Communist East Germany, where most women worked, there was an extensive system of state-run daycare centres, but with the collapse of communism, much of that system has disappeared with the withdrawal of government support and the jump in the jobless rate.

Women who live in the former East Germany often say its one of their keenest regrets about the end of communism.

The result of Germany's approach is that German women have one of the lowest labour-participation rates in the Western world.

Petra Volland, the mother of a three-year-old girl and a six-month-old boy, used to work as a lawyer for a utility in Essen. Now, she is planning to stay home until her boy is 3. "I want to be with them and bring them up," she said. At that point, she would like to work part-time.

That's common. Of the mothers who work outside the home in Germany, only about half work full-time.

Ms. Volland's husband, Ralf, is an engineer whose income is sufficient to allow his wife to remain home with the kids. Family allowances help as does a special grant of $1,600 that his health-insurance fund provides on the birth of each child.

But for families with lower incomes, the choices are stark. "I have a lot of friends who would like to have a second child, but they say it's not possible financially," Ms. Ciszek said. "Because their income is not high, they cannot afford to have one of them staying at home full-time."

Kathy O'Hara, who studied family policy in eight countries, including France and Germany, for Canadian Policy Research Networks, was particularly impressed by the French model because it does not dictate to parents how to raise their children.

"What I like is the idea of choice," she said. "They have a whole array of policies that fit the range of options from stay-at-home mothers to working mothers."

If Caroline Périard-Maury had decided to stay home after the birth of her second child last April, the French government would have given her the equivalent of about $720 a month until Melitza turned 3, plus the standard $165 a month in family allowances. (The family got no assistance for their first child, Valentine, because most assistance kicks in with the second child and provides large increases for the third and subsequent children in an effort to encourage big families.)

Critics of the subsidy program for stay-at-home mothers say its real goal is not to give choices to parents, but to reduce France's high unemployment by getting mothers to leave the labour force.

The fees at the municipal crèche also favour larger families. While the Ms. Périard-Maury and her husband paid about $700 a month for Valentine to stay with Ms. Benoît, the cost rose to only $1,100 when Melitza joined her sister. Income taxes also decline as the family grows.

The municipality pays Ms. Benoît just under $30 a day to take care of each child plus $13 for food, no matter what the parents pay. "The daycare centre supplies everything -- the beds, the high chairs, the strollers," she said.

The municipality also makes sure all children see a doctor regularly. Once a week, Ms. Benoît takes the children to a municipal nursery where they play with other children.

Asnières-sur-Seine, a community of 70,000, provides a total of 650 daycare spaces for children under 3, with 165 of them in family care. The whole operation is heavily subsidized by the town, the region and France's social security system. Some parents pay as little as $125 a month for a daycare space.

Because of the high costs to municipalities, there is a chronic shortage of daycare spaces all over France, with only 8 per cent of all children under 3 actually enrolled in a municipal centre.

Pascale Méridoux, director of Asnière's family daycare centre, admits that only 40 per cent of applicants in her town manage to get a space.

The balance have to make other arrangements. The government subsidizes the cost of registered caregivers and nannies, provided that they are paid the minimum wage.

Maria-Pina Selbonne, a secretary, never managed to get a place in a daycare centre in the Paris suburb of Noisy-le-Grand for her two-year-old girl. She and her husband, a cook, also have a nine-year-old boy.

"It's not a bad system, but it's not adapted for everyone," Ms. Selbonne said of France's family policy.

She couldn't afford the $1,000-a-month cost of hiring a babysitter who would be paid officially so she turned to her mother, who takes care of two other children as well.

Ms. Selbonne pays her mother about $500 a month, but because it's all off the books, she gets no official tax deduction.

The seeds of France's family policies were sown in the 19th century, when a slow-growing population was blamed for France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the public was convinced that the birth rate had to be boosted, leading to the emphasis on aid to large families when family allowances were introduced later.

"The idea was that you had to protect the family to encourage the birth rate for the edification of the French nation," said Marie-Thérèse Letablier, a researcher on family policy.

"Children are considered as a collective responsibility," said Jeanne Fagnani, an adviser to the Caisse nationale des allocations familiales, the agency that supervises most of France's family policies. "The child doesn't only belong to its parents. Children are also the community's business."

And the state is responsible for all children, not just the poor. That means basic family allowances are paid for all French children and daycare centres are subsidized for all. "We don't want to make ghettos for children," Ms. Fagnani said. "Daycare is a right belonging to everyone. We don't want crèches to concentrate the children of the poor."

While family allowances and other tax breaks are available to all families, more than half of all spending goes to families of three children or more, particularly those with low incomes.

Micheline Thezenas is a divorced mother of four adolescents, aged 12, 13, 14 and 15. A native of Guadeloupe, she earns $1,565 a month after tax as a chambermaid in a Paris hotel, but she gets an additional $1,200 a month in family allowances for her four children. The state also pays half of her monthly rent of $842.

And since school has just begun, she has received $385 for each of her children to pay for books, supplies and clothing. "If I didn't have that back-to-school money, it would be very difficult," she said.

All of this comes at a huge cost. France's social security system will spend a mind-boggling 290 billion francs (about $70-billion) on its family policy this year. That's more than the country's budget on defence and its budget for primary and secondary education.

While nobody seriously questions the spending, employers grumble that the cost of family policy is borne solely by them through payroll taxes that boost the cost of hiring workers and contribute to France's 11.2-per-cent jobless rate.

"It's not up to us to pay for the cost of family support. It should be the state that pays," said Gilbert Diepois, who represents France's largest employer group on the Caisse nationale des allocations familiales.

"Salary charges are so high in France that we are penalized in comparison with other countries in Europe," he said. In fact, few parents can afford to pay the taxes for legally employed caregivers so one government program pays them itself to discourage off-the-books employment of nannies.

Yet Mr. Diepois sees no reason to reduce the generosity of the system or limit it to lower-income families. "I'm among those who believe that once you have children, they should be supported equally," he said. "We want to stop family allowances from becoming a method of income redistribution. It would be a deviation from its original goal."

Yet despite this generous state assistance, families still feel ambivalent about reconciling work and responsibility for children.

Ms. Fagnani said mothers remain "guilt-ridden" about leaving their young children while they work because of the traditional values that still dominate French society.

And despite the generosity of family allowances, most French families don't opt for large families. Caroline Périard-Maury and Philippe Maury are adamant about that.

"Having a third would be just too much," Mr. Maury said. "It's a question of money. It would mean changing our apartment. We only have two bedrooms now and buying a larger apartment is very expensive in Paris. And then, there's the cost of education. Maybe a third is possible in the country, but not in Paris."
NEXT: Children's agenda


Family allowances: They are provided to all families, regardless of income, either as a tax-free cash grant or in the form of tax relief for parents. The amount varies with the number of children: $202 (250 marks) a month each for the first and second child, $242 (300 marks) for the third child and $283 (350 marks) for the fourth and subsequent children.
Child-raising leave: All working mothers and fathers are entitled to child-raising leave until their child turns four, and they are protected from dismissal during that period.
Child-raising allowance: A mother or father can claim as much as $485 a month to stay home to raise a child. The allowance declines dramatically after six months unless families have low incomes. Part-time work of less than 19 hours a week is permitted with no loss of entitlement.
Housing benefit: Families who build or buy their own home can receive $1,212 a year for each child for up to eight years.
Single parents: If a child up to 12 years of age receives no benefits from the other parent, a single parent is eligible to receive special additional maintenance support of $181 a month for children under six and of $242 a month for children from seven to 12.
Income tax: Couples can split their household incomes, which is particularly valuable to families in which there is a single breadwinner with a high income.
Daycare and school: The daycare system and primary schooling are not geared to working families. They have short hours and many schools do not serve meals.

Sources: German ministry of labour and social affairs, Canadian Policy Research Networks


Family allowances: Universal grants start with the birth of the second child and are not income-tested. (Allowances are also paid for first children, but they are income-tested.) Parents receive $165 a month for their second child and $212 for their third and each subsequent child. Family allowances rise by $46 a month when a child turns 11 and by $83 a month after 16. Family allowances are payable until a child turns 20, provided the child is still in school or doing an apprenticeship.
Unpaid parental leave: Parents can take leaves of up to three years, which includes protection against dismissal.
Hiring a caregiver at her own home: The social security system will pay payroll taxes for a caregiver, equivalent to as much as 45 per cent of the salary, provided that the caregiver is paid officially. Parents are also eligible for a subsidy of $1,992 every three months for a child under three and of $996 for a child from three to six. Expenses are also tax-deductible.
Hiring a babysitter at parents' home: Provided the babysitter is paid the official minimum wage, families can get the social security system to pay 50 to 75 per cent of wages for babysitters to a maximum of $2,342 every three months, depending on the parents' income. Costs are also tax-deductible.
Stay-at-home mothers: Mothers who stop working after the birth of their second child can receive a flat-rate grant of $722 a month for the first three years of a child's life. It is not income-tested. Until 1994, it was given only after the birth of the third child.
Back-to-school grant: Families can get as much as $385 for each child as an annual grant to pay for school supplies, books and clothing. It is income-tested.
Family housing allowance: The government provides an income-tested rental subsidy that favours large families.
Daycare and school: Municipalities run crèches that take care of babies and toddlers from three months to 2½ years and fees are geared to income. École Maternelle, or junior school, begins as early as the age of 2½, with virtually all children attending from the age of three. Écoles Maternelles are free.
Income tax: Income tax declines as the number of children increases.
Other benefits: School meals are subsidized and large families get discounts on the French railways.
Source: Caisse nationale des allocations familiales

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