Tuesday, September 20, 2005

PARIS — Middle-class French women will be offered cash incentives to have a third child amid growing concerns that professional couples are having too few children.

Although France’s fertility rate of 1.9 for each couple is relatively high among European countries, family lobbyists are dismayed by a fall in the number of babies born to better-educated women.

The government will announce its proposals tomorrow when Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, the father of three children, presides at a conference on family life. A big increase in allowances has been widely predicted.

France’s National Union of Family Associations, which is known by its French acronym UNAF and is playing a key role in shaping policy, said the figure should be set at up to $1,250 a month for women with three children, double the present maximum, and should be set according to the woman’s salary.

Despite the budgetary implications in a country that is already accused of living extravagantly, the government agrees with the principle and is said to be finalizing the details of a “very significant” initiative.

Given France’s egalitarian ideals, the notion of creating perks to attract professional mothers did not go down well with the socialist opposition.

Although class or racial issues have been sidestepped, there is a suspicion on the left that the ruling center-right regards the existing system as favoring those with little work ethic who live on handouts.

“The poor current level of compensation appeals only to those on lower incomes,” said UNAF President Hubert Brin.

“This is not just a French problem but affects Europe in general. In Germany, as many as 40 percent of professional women turn their backs on maternity.

“Ask a professional woman these days to make a definitive choice between having a career and having babies, and she’ll choose the former.”

Demographic trends in Muslim and non-Muslim communities are rarely mentioned in public debate. France has the largest Muslim community in Europe, estimated at up to 10 percent of its 60 million population.

“France is facing the problem that dare not speak its name,” columnist Barbara Amiel wrote in 2004 for the London Telegraph.

“Though French law prohibits the census from any reference to ethnic background or religion, many demographers estimate that as much as 20 [to] 30 percent of the population under 25 is now Muslim. …

“Given current birthrates, it is not impossible that in 25 years France will have a Muslim majority. The consequences are dynamic: Is it possible that secular France might become an Islamic state?” Ms. Amiel wrote.

A 2004 study on European population trends sponsored by the Pew Research Center said the demographic shift affects all of Europe, which receives 1 million legal immigrants, most from Muslim nations, each year.

“At the same time, Muslims already living on the continent are having three times as many children as their white, European neighbors,” the Pew report said.

French parents with three children already benefit in a number of ways, including family allowances of nearly $360 a month, a $360 annual contribution to out-of-school activity costs and generous reductions on train and bus fares.

There are plans to extend the “big family” advantage card beyond public transportation to a range of other services.

At present, women are entitled to six months of maternity benefits for the first child and three years for the second.

The new allowance will last for a year and be available to any French mother who elects to have a third baby and stay at home.

But UNAF says linking benefits to the woman’s salary level will make it more attractive to high-fliers.

The one-year limit would be aimed at reducing pressure on social security spending and prevent women becoming detached from the world of work they leave to have families. Caps also might be placed on spending in other areas of family support.

Corinne Baconnet, 36, a Parisian vascular surgeon who is expecting her third child in a month, said, “I do not think the government does enough to encourage women who want to have bigger families.

“I come from a family with three children and always wanted three of my own, but I am also from a generation of women for whom just staying at home was never an option,” Dr. Baconnet said.

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