A FEW minutes after the doors open at the Ville de Paris 'Ecole Maternelle on a misty Wednesday morning, high heels click across the floor. A neatly dressed woman and her young son walk hand in hand toward a desk where Fabienne Sovino, a teacher at the nursery school, prepares for the day. Ms. Sovino looks up and smiles. After collecting 13 francs (about $2.15) for the little boy's hot lunch, she checks off his name in an attendance book.
The mother kisses her son goodbye. But tears well in his eyes, and he clutches her skirt.
Gathering him into her arms, she sits on a tiny blue bench and comforts him. Then, gently releasing her son's hold, she plants another kiss and leaves for work.
It's a farewell scene repeated again and again, more often with smiles than with tears, as parents deliver their preschool children to 'ecoles maternelles around the city each weekday morning.
These free public preschools for three- to six-year-olds mark a child's entrance into the national education system. They also constitute part of an extensive array of social services that help French parents provide for their children.
As parents, educators, and policymakers in the United States debate the proper role of government in providing family supports, many are looking to European countries, such as France and Belgium, which have well-developed family policies, for possible models.
From family allowances and maternity benefits to parental leave and child care, Europeans have long taken for granted services that American parents are beginning to demand.
Here at the Ville de Paris nursery school on Rue Vaneau, preschoolers spend up to 10 hours each weekday under the supervision of five teachers.
Indoors, they play in a spacious, well-equipped room with a vaulted skylight, canary cages, and lush green plants. Outdoors, a shaded courtyard features a Jungle Gym, pint-size Hula-Hoops, and tricycles. A cheerful lower-level lunchroom adjoins a nap room with 45 small cots, each with a yellow plaid blanket and a teddy bear.
But even this pleasant setting cannot erase the ambivalence many parents feel about leaving their offspring.
``Most mothers say they would prefer to be at home with their children, but they have to work,'' says Sovino, a teacher here for eight years.
``They are very pleased on their day off to be home with their children.''
Still, French parents acknowledge that government supports make their dual roles easier.
Legally women have the right to 16 weeks of maternity leave, plus additional time for those who breast-feed. During maternity leave, social security pays 80 percent of their normal salary, with employers contributing the remaining 20 percent if they choose.
Working parents can also take a two-year unpaid leave to be with young children. Although returning workers are entitled to their old job or a comparable position with no loss of seniority, Yolande Collaret, a staff member at the Institute for Children and Families, says:
``Legally this is all true, but in reality it's much different. When companies are restructured, for example, you go back and find you've been structured out.''
Fathers are also eligible for this leave, Ms. Collaret adds, but ``that's mostly on paper. It is extremely exceptional that a man would take it.''
Government officials hope these family supports will increase the birthrate, because European rates have been declining and are below replacement level. But Jacques Bonnafoux, director of the National Union of Family Associations, insists that motives are altruistic as well.
``Policy with regard to family is not just a matter of birthrates,'' he says.
``It's a question of justice and of compensation for the cost of families. Along with the right not to have children today, there should be a corresponding right to have the children one would like. Not only to be able to bear the children, but to assume financial responsibilities that go along with educating and raising the children.''
One source of financial assistance comes through a family allowance. Dominique Sollier, the mother of a 17-month-old son, explains that she and her husband, Laurent, received 750 francs (about $120) a month for 10 months.
``It isn't a very big thing,'' she says, ``but it helps to buy baby clothes and other items you need.''
The government also provides publicly subsidized infant nurseries, or cr`eches.
``When you're two months pregnant, you have to ask for a position in a state-run cr`eche,'' says Isabelle Trema, the mother of a two-year-old boy. Although Ms. Trema placed her son in one of these facilities, she says she ``wasn't happy about the quality of care.''
She now uses a private center. But, she admits, ``There are many people who don't have the luxury of choosing a private cr`eche.''
Quality of family life assessed
Despite this comprehensive array of supports, challenges remain. Marie-Fran,coise L'evy, a staff member at the Institute of Children and Families, hears women complaining that they are tired of the media presentation of Superwoman. Many also worry about the quality of family life.
``It is still just as difficult as it always has been for women to assume a double role as professional woman and mother,'' adds Monique Tregaro, a mother of three sons and the assistant secretary general of Conf'ed'eration Syndicale des Familles, a national trade union organization dealing with family issues.
``It's the perpetual struggle of women to find the equilibrium. We remain very marked by our own cultural heritage, which has given us models as mothers at home rather than as people who are active in society. It explains why we feel guilt.''
For some parents, guilt is exacerbated by a lack of child care on Wednesday afternoons when schools are closed and during school vacations. Although by law French workers receive a minimum of five weeks of vacation a year, schoolchildren are off a week in February, 15 days at Easter, and two months in summer.
Some parents send offspring to vacation camps, located outside the city and organized either by the city or by other organizations.
Other couples have to stagger their vacations.
Mr. Bonnafoux, the father of two children, offers an example: ``My wife will take 15 days to be with the children, we'll all be together 15 days, then I will take 15 days. This is more and more frequent.'' He would like to see a ``serious revision'' of the school calendar.
Christiane Garnault, a single mother of two who works as a chef, admits she struggled for a long time with ``the anguish of seeing my children alone at home.''
Gradually, as the children have grown, she has found advantages to being a working mother. ``It gives a lot of autocracy to children. But it doesn't stop me from feeling guilt. It's pride and guilt at the same time.''
Guilt also stems from media coverage. On TV and in newspapers and magazines, says Martine Felix, another institute staff member, ``Parents are constantly being confronted with the question `Am I a good parent?'''
Although the majority of French women with one or two children return to work, traditional attitudes remain deeply entrenched in some homes. Attitudes on family roles vary
``It's difficult for the wife to work,'' says Guy Amoureux, a management consultant and the father of two small children. ``My wife plans to spend four, five, six years at home if we have three or four children. Then she can begin new work in five or 10 years.''
And Laurent Sollier echoes the comments of other men when he says, ``A wife should be home. There's nothing more natural than that the mother spends most of her time with the child.'' He believes part-time work is ``a good balance.''
Mrs. Sollier, who admits she misses her job in an interior design shop, hopes to return part-time in September.
Like other fathers interviewed, Mr. Amoureux and Mr. Sollier are part of a generation of men who, in Bonnafoux's words, ``are spending much more time with their children than their fathers did. Most of my friends are as involved in raising children as their wives.'' He also believes that many men participate equally in household chores when their wives work.
Some women find that assessment optimistic. ``It's a big problem,'' Ms. L'evy remarks. ``Husbands say, `Yes, we support you, honey,' but they don't help.''
Adds Collaret, ``We see a considerable increase in the number of men who are walking with young children, taking them to school and parks, and so on. It's still a small majority, but there are more. But repetitive daily tasks are still in the woman's domain.''
Yet family experts note other kinds of progress within families.
Fifteen years ago, Mrs. Tregaro points out, ``couples just didn't get married. Now people are getting married again. Many couples who live together for many years get married when they want to have a child.'' At the same time, she notes, divorce rates have risen.
She also thinks relations between parents and children have changed dramatically in the past 20 years. ``There's less of an authoritarian relationship between parents and children and more of a relationship of dialogue.''
Changing family patterns also give grandparents a bigger role.
``Because of longer life expectancy,'' Bonnafoux says, ``grandparents have taken over some responsibilities, particularly in teaching values. If parents are divorced, grandparents can become an anchor.''
Summing up the mood of many family specialists, L'evy says simply, ``French families are doing well.''
``Family has become once again the primary value,'' says Bonnafoux.
``We're seeing a new phenomenon in the last three or four years. Whereas before, young people wanted to leave home, now they stay.
``It's not uniquely economic, although young people who are unemployed do go back to family to find roots, warmth, and support.''
Andr'e Rauget, secretary-general of the International Union of Family Organizations, concurs:
``Families have a different role, a different approach today, but they are stronger. We are optimistic.''