The headlines abroad about France's 2015 budget are understandably focused on the government's defiance of the European Union's mandated austerity. But within France, among families – particularly those like mine, with young children – concerns hit much closer to home: specifically, the generous parental perks now on the cutting board.
France’s Socialist government said today that it would not bring borrowing down to EU mandates of 3 percent of output until 2017 – two years later than it promised, after already having received an extension from 2013. “No further effort will be demanded of the French, because the government – while taking the fiscal responsibility needed to put the country on the right track – rejects austerity," the budget statement said.
Yet in France, that announcement has been overshadowed by the fact that the budget includes the biggest cost cuts in recent history – 21 billion euros ($26 billion). Among them would be a 700 million-euro ($880 million) cut to family benefits, including one-off payments for the birth of children.
The health minister's introduction of the welfare budget set the media abuzz about other family-related changes as well, from payments for second children to parental leave policies. Le Figaro claimed in an editorial Tuesday that “having children in France will soon become a luxury.”
Such policies are wrong-headed, the editorial says, because they helped keep the fertility rate of France the second-highest in Europe – one strength that France has over aging Germany, which beats France on most every other measure.
They've also kept working mothers here sane and ultimately in the workforce – so effectively that the Monitor questioned if French women even needed feminist activism in a piece last year.
Faced with these new policies, many would say that women still do, especially on the issue of parental leave.
Currently a parent can stay home until a child reaches his or her third birthday, with a guarantee of keeping the same job or an equivalent and some state support. The vast majority of those who use this benefit are women. The new policy seeks to split the time in half between both parents, giving one 18 months and the other the remaining 18. Otherwise the couple loses it altogether.
The changes in parental leave are touted as an effort toward gender equality, as in Sweden, where partners must also use their parental leave or the couple loses it. There it works.
But in France, many say that this policy does nothing to counter gender roles. Rather, they say, it is just a disguise for cost savings, as most spouses – usually men – simply won’t take 18 months off.
One friend of mine was set to go back to work after a year at home with her son, but, facing the prospect of uncertain hours, she decided to stay home. She’s planning on going back within weeks – he is now 2 – but if the hours are too erratic and she can't find a balance, she knows she has a full year until she has to legally return. She says her partner would not, and could not, make that same choice.
Not all French can afford to make a similar choice, either, but the flexibility is something that American working mothers can only dream of.
And now it might become just a dream in France, too.