Americans have long had a love-hate relationship with all things French. Certain cultural elements have poured into our country without a thought – from fine wines to aged cheeses. Even books on how French women stay thin have found their way into suburban book clubs across the country.
But other general beliefs and cultural attributes of our Parisian friends never get past casual dinner conversation. A recent article in the Washington Post  suggests that the most appropriate emotion toward French women may be envy.
France, along with a handful of other European countries, has been facing zero population growth. To encourage more French women to have babies (and make it easier for them to work with kids) France has added new and improved family friendly laws, to what many already considered to be generous policies that have been in place since 1970.
The result? France now has the second-highest fertility rate (1.94) in Europe, and the attention of other countries facing the same issue.
So what is it that French mothers have that American mothers don’t? And is this something American women want?
France has more working women than any other country in the European Union. The French Embassy reports 80% of women between 25 and 50 work 70% to full-time. Recent changes to increase monthly grants for French women who have their third child are aimed to appeal to women earning a higher wage.
And while American women are working in record numbers it can be argued they are not seeing the same type of flexible, family friendly policies and quality child care that French women have come to expect. In France:
* French mothers receive 100% of their salary for six weeks prior to the birth of their baby and 10 weeks after.
* Maternity leave ranges from 20 weeks for the first child to up to 40 weeks for the third child.
* Paternity leave (introduced in 2002) grants fathers 11 days full pay.
* Parental leave (introduced in 1997) is available to parents who have been with a company for at least one year, and gives mother and/or father the right to take three years’ unpaid leave. At the end of that time the employer must take them back under the same terms as before.
* Tax breaks based on the number of children for French families.
* Monthly childcare subsidies.
* Inexpensive summer camps.
* Long paid vacations. (Anywhere from 4-8 weeks.)
* Free child care centers for children ages 3-Kindergarten.
* Subsidies to help cover childcare costs.
Why is it the U.S. (along with Australia) are the only two industrialized countries that do not provide paid leave for new mothers on a national scale?
Can France’s pro-family policies be attributed to their population problems, or does France (and countries with similar policies) place a greater value on families?
Would a more pro-family U.S. be better for America?
It would seem that the obvious answer here is yes. But in addition to listing benefits there needs to be more debate on how these changes would affect health insurance costs, taxes, the economy, resistance from employers, and other valid concerns. We will remain envious and leave that debate for another day.
Tracy B. McGinnis has published hundreds of articles on women's issues, parenting, and business, among other topics. Her work has appeared in national print and trade magazines including PINK, Women's Health and Fitness, and American Baby, among others. She has written dozens of features on-line for popular and award wining sites like Babyzone.com, iParenting Media Group, and SheKnows, to name few. Tracy lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband and two boys, ages 4 and 14 months.