‘Middle class’ mums in France are to get £500 a month to have a third child.
The Websters already have two under the age of five and would like another. They cannot afford this, either. They already pay £1,500 a month in childcare and when Claire goes back to work part-time, this will increase by £500.
In a couple of years’ time, when both girls are at nursery school their parents will be paying £1,800 in school fees and £972 a month for the nanny who takes them to school, picks them up and looks after them before their parents come home from work.
“Financial concerns are the number one thing hindering me from having another baby,” said Claire, a commercial property agent. “It is a very depressing situation.”
They live in the West End of London, where they say there are no decent state nurseries or schools. “The classes are enormous, the teachers de-motivated and most of the pupils don’t speak English,” said David, a management consultant. “The only other options are the Church of England school or the private schools.”
The fees for the nearest private day school are more than £10,000 a year. “It’s very difficult for our generation,” said David. “You have to be very rich to live in England now and give your children the kind of education you received. But because you had the advantage of it, you feel you owe it to your children to give them the same start.”
Things are different in France. When I asked my husband if he would like to have a third child, he had only one condition. It had to be a boy. This isn’t because we are splendidly rich, but simply because we live in the south of France. As well as the sunshine, we enjoy free or state-subsidised childcare. The schools are good so there’s no need to work like a dog to pay school fees. Moreover, the French taxman, who is not usually renowned for his generosity, loves a big family. Our taxes are significantly lower because of the children.
Every morning our youngest child (yes, a boy) is collected by a childminder whose fees are subsidised by the state. The two girls have been going to the local primary school since they were two.
If I’m working late they can stay until 6pm for no extra charge. The child benefit I receive is generous. In addition, as we are now what the state refers to as a famille nombreuse, we enjoy perks such as first-class rail travel at hugely discounted prices.
When we lived in England I only had one child. But I was pregnant with the second and already asking myself if it would be worth me carrying on working once it had been born. Our first daughter’s nursery was costing me more than £60 a day. And there were heavy fines if I collected her late, which was often because of the unreliable trains.
With a second child, the cost would double. By the time I had paid my train fare I would be making a loss. If I had a third child I would be in serious debt. What was the upside to working?
Viewed from Britain, it is easy to think the French are spoilt. French women are even allowed a generous three years’ maternity leave compared with the British 26 weeks. But both the French government and the population think that there are still not enough incentives to have children.
Last week, Dominique de Villepin, the French prime minister, announced that mothers with two children would be paid €750 (£509) a month to stop working for a year if they are prepared to have a third child.
To understand this you need to understand a bit about French family life and culture. First, the government has a huge state pensions bill looming and not enough workers to pay for it. It has worked out that the way to boost population figures is not to increase immigration, as in Britain, but to add a third child to families.
Second, France is a family culture. Children are even welcome in three-star restaurants. They are also no impediment to a successful career. Clara Gaymard, for example, is married to the former finance minister and is herself the head of the French inward investment agency. They have eight children. Another well-known MP, Ségolène Royal, has four children. Both often acknowledge the support of the French state in helping them get as far as they have.
French women are already the second most fecund in the European Union, with an average of 1.9 children against an EU average of 1.4 and a British average of 1.6. But even this is not enough to halt a decrease in the population. Hence the new incentive.
The sum the government is offering for a third child would not make a huge difference to a middle-class British couple paying for a nanny and nursery, but it is almost as much as the average wage of €1,000 a month in the Languedoc region where I live.
“I know what I would rather do,” said a female wine-making friend of mine. “Having a baby is a lot easier than trying to sell wine. And now a lot more profitable.”
According to government estimates, 100,000 parents are likely to take advantage of the initiative, which kicks in on July 1, 2006.
It has been described in the British press as a middle-class incentive, the argument being that you can only get it if you’re a professional and it’s not available to women on the dole. But it is not, as some commentators have suggested, linked to salaries.
“The money is available to anyone, no matter what class or what level of education they have,” said Philippe Bas, a junior social security minister with responsibility for the family. “In fact, it is specifically geared to helping the more professionally fragile and less educated women get back to work quickly. If they take more than a year out, they lose the working habit.”
Jill Kirby — a London lawyer who gave up full-time work on becoming a mother and is now an analyst on family issues at the Centre for Policy Studies, the right of centre think tank — believes the British government would do well to acknowledge the need for similar action.
“The situation here is that you have the very low-income families having lots of children and the very rich doing the same,” she said. “Those who can get enough benefits to break even on each child are having more children than other sectors of society. You are now as likely to find four children in a single-parent family as you are in a privileged one. Among middle-income families on average earnings, the birth rate has fallen dramatically.” She thinks that
£300 a month “might just tip the balance” in persuading mothers to have a third child.
It would certainly help John and Emma Early, who live in east Devon with their two children Caleb, 2, and Lucca, 11 months. They would love to have another child but cannot afford it. “Having a third child would be great, but it’s just not possible for us at the moment,” says Emma. “It’s difficult having two children, but having another would be impossible. It would be very hard to afford days out or nice things like music lessons. The French scheme sounds great.”
Money is the number one worry of mothers who visit the netmums.com website. “A huge amount of mothers simply can’t afford to spend time with their children,” said Siobhan Freegard, founder of the site. “They don’t have the luxury of choice, they have to work” The French scheme does have its critics, however. Some say it is just a cunning plan to produce more tax earners to pay for the pension of French bureaucrats.
Caroline Maudet has two children. Will the incentive encourage her to have a third child? “It’s not nearly enough,” she said. “It should last for at least three years. What will I do before my child is two and can go to the nursery section of the local school?” Maudet worries that the scheme may prove counter-productive. “It might appeal to those on a middle income but it will also appeal to those on very low incomes who do nothing but jump at any benefit they see coming. Then they have children who they don’t educate and they end up on benefits. So the whole thing is a waste of time and money.”
Sarah Gondard, a teacher from Lyons, doesn’t agree. “It will certainly have an effect on any decision I make,” she said. “At the moment we have two boys and I have been toying with the idea of trying for a girl. I take home €1,100 (£745) a month, so this is a really attractive option for me.”
Faced with such a range of incentives, David and Claire Webster say it is almost enough to make them consider moving to France.
It was Winston Churchill who said there is no better investment that a community can make than putting milk into its babies. It seems it is the French who have heeded the lesson, while in England having more than two children is now the ultimate luxury.
More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell is available at www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy.
BENEFITS AND BIRTHRATES
Britain is less generous than similar European countries. But does it really affect the birth rate?
Child benefit for mother with three children: £290 a month
Maternity and parental leave: 170 weeks*
Proportion of working women with no children: 77%**
Proportion of working women with two children: 56%**
Birthrate 1.3 (children for each woman)
Child benefit for mother with three children: £263 a month
Maternity and parental leave: 170 weeks
Proportion of working women with no children: 73%
Proportion of working women with two children: 59%
Child benefit for mother of three: £226 a month
Maternity and parental leave: 78 weeks
Proportion of working women with no children: 82%
Proportion of working women with two children: 82%
Child benefit for mother of three: £189 a month
Maternity and parental leave: 40 weeks
Proportion of working women with no children: 66%
Proportion of working women with two children: 41%
Child benefit for mother of three: £170 a month
Maternity and parental leave: 52 weeks
Proportion of working women with no children: 80%
Proportion of working women with two children: 62%
*Total number of weeks a mother can take off work while her job is held open
**Figures for all countries are based on employment rate of women aged 25-54
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019