- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

PARIS

With her first two children, MaryClaire King relished her lengthy hospital stays and four-month paid maternity leaves. With the third, she opted for a three-year leave from her marketing job at IBM France with the guarantee of a job at the same salary when she returned.

Today, the 39-year-old Atlanta native has opted to become a writer and stay-at-home mom, but the perks for having children in France keep rolling in.

“My friends are always going, ‘That’s not possible!’” says Mrs. King, breaking into laughter at her spacious Paris apartment, as she describes the envy back in the United States.

“They’ll say it’s all going to fail, as if France is going to sink into the Atlantic Ocean because it’s just too good to be true.”

Through tax and transportation breaks, child and health care benefits, the French government has been aggressively pushing a pro-baby policy for years, and it has paid off.

With an average of two children per woman of childbearing age, France’s birth rate - the highest in the 27-member European Union - stars in an otherwise gloomy European reproduction record.

With few exceptions, birth rates across the EU have been declining steadily for decades. Only recently have the consequences — a dwindling work force bankrolling an aging population — sunk in.

Meanwhile, Europe is turning the spigot off to another source of labor: immigration.

The European Commission raised the alarm bell in a 2005 study, warning that falling fertility rates averaging just 1.48 — well below the 2.1 replacement rate — could hurt the region’s economy, living standard and relations between generations. The fertility rate in the United States is 2.1, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

“Modern Europe has never had economic growth without births,” it noted.

Now, local and national governments across the bloc are responding with a flurry of incentives, many of them cash payments to have children, but most of it is inadequate, demographers say.

“Purely pro-natal policies [such as] giving people a baby bonus if they have more children and so on has only a marginal effect,” says Mark Pierson, head of the social policy division at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

“It’s not a very effective way of encouraging fertility. The way you encourage women to have more children is to help them work more.”

Successive French governments have ensured women here do not have to choose between jobs and children.

Roughly 80 percent of French women between ages 25 and 49 work, according to government statistics — one of the highest rates in Europe. Their lives are eased by cheap health care, low-cost preschools available for infants as young as 6 months, subsidized at-home care and generous maternity leaves.

Mothers with three children can take a year off work and receive a monthly “paycheck” of up to $1,180 from the government to stay at home. Families get subsidized public transportation and rail travel and holiday vouchers.

Those policies tipped the balance for Mrs. King, when she and her French husband mulled whether to have more children.

“If I had to work as some of my friends did in the States right up till the end, I would have hesitated much more seriously about my second and third child,” says Mrs. King, whose three boys range in age from 5 to 10 years.

“And I knew that taking maternity leave wasn’t going to hurt my career.”

The choice has also been easy for 42-year-old Nathalie Martiniere, now nursing a 6-month-old.

A university professor, Mrs. Martiniere has hired a full-time nanny to care for her infant this fall, when she resumes commuting from Paris to her job in the French city of Limoges, 215 miles away.

“France has been concerned about low fertility for half a century, basically for historical reasons,” says Francesco Billari, a demographer at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, offering one explanation for why France’s birth rate is the highest in the EU.

“Some people connected it to military losses and loss of political and economic power.”

Like France, family-friendly policies in Nordic countries also have delivered, although most have been put in place primarily to encourage gender equality in the work force, experts say.

In Sweden, for example, with a healthy 1.85 birthrate, according to European Union statistics, both parents are entitled to 18 months of government-paid leave. Day care is subsidized and many jobs offer flexible works schedules.

At 1.32, Germany by contrast has among the lowest birthrates in the region, with day care expensive and scarce.

However, under Family Affairs Minister Ursula von der Leyen - a mother of seven - the government has made babies a priority, drafting a plan to increase the number of kindergarten spots and passing legislation offering tax breaks to families.

Two other laggards, Spain and Italy, also are changing their policies, joining a number of European governments offering cash incentives to have babies.

One mayor in southern Italy even announced he would pay a $15,000 baby bonus on top of the government´s $1,500-per-child rate.

Meanwhile, EU countries are increasingly cracking down on illegal immigration and becoming choosier on what legal aliens they will allow to join their labor markets. That, say demographers like Mr. Billari, is a mistake.

“Fertility policies have an effect only after 20 years or so. They can’t resolve problems in the labor market over the next 10 years,” he says. “It’s clear immigration helps in keeping a well-balanced population.”

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