tells us about recent changes about parental leave in France
Olivier Thévenon co-directs INED’s economic demography research team. A main focus of his research is family policy in OECD countries and the issue of reconciling family and working life. Here he analyses recent French government proposals in the area of family policy (interview from October 1st, 2014).
To reduce the deficit of the “family” section of France’s social security system, the government recently presented a set of cost-saving measures, including a change in parental leave arrangements. What are the main characteristics of the current system?
At the present time, France has one of the longest parental leave periods in Europe: a maximum of 3 years. But it also enables parents to put their child in day care at the very early age of 3 months, either in a nursery or with a childminder. The idea behind these options was to ensure that parents could “freely choose” between the different types of day care.
In fact, they are not really free to choose. Wealthy families more often have their child cared for at home or in a collective structure, whereas low-income families (or families where the woman does not have a stable job) more often turn to parental leave, in many cases because they have not been able to find a place in a nursery. Another characteristic of French parental leave, which combines long duration with a very low fixed allowance, is that it is used almost exclusively by women (96% of leaves are taken by the mother), despite the fact that both parents have a right to it. Here France contrasts with the Nordic countries, which offer relatively short leave time but pay out benefits proportional to salary, a point that is decisive for male-female equality. Iceland, for example, offers nine months of parental leave—three months for the mother, three for the father, and the last three to be shared according to parents’ wishes—while the allowance before the economic crisis still amounted to 80% of salary. Countries like Germany have reformed their system along the same lines, which has enabled them to raise the number of parental leave days taken by fathers. Portugal has quite an innovative arrangement; it’s the only country where benefits are higher when both partners take leave.
Will the new government policy, wherein total leave time is equally shared out between parents, be an incentive to men to take paternity leave?
I don’t think so, because the allowance hasn’t changed. The financial parameter—essential if fathers are going to take more than a few days of paternity leave—is missing. As I see it, the policy could even represent a risk of impoverishment because fathers who do take leave will most likely be from low-income families, who will therefore be losing relatively little income, but this means that the resources of such families could fall still lower. Not to mention the possible negative impact of parental leave on occupational trajectories, in terms of pay, for example—putting not one but both parents in a more vulnerable position.
The reform raises another problem. If the leave taken by the mother is shortened—from 3 years to 18 months, for example—and if the father doesn’t use the months reserved for him, that will of course help the “family” section save money, but day care facilities will have to be increased simultaneously. And at the present time, there is great uncertainty about reaching the objectives set for childcare service supply, not only because the cost of that service is rising but also because the economic crisis is affecting local governments’ financial commitments. So with reduced parental leave, which I doubt will change fathers’ behaviour, and no assurances that more nursery facilities will be developed, the proposed reforms do not seem highly advanced enough to lead to genuine improvement in the reconciliation of work and family life in France.
Does this set of measures indicate a significant directional change in French family policy? Might it have an impact on fertility, as critics claim?
If there is such an effect, it will probably not be on birth of the first child or even the second, but it is likely to affect decisions to have a third child. However, the greatest impact of a family policy is how it’s perceived, whether or not it elicits families’ trust and confidence.
The fact is that since 2013 many things have been changed, like the “family quotient" tax reduction [now less generous to high-income families], and the childcare investment programme. We are witnessing a real reconfiguring of family policy in France, the aim being to integrate it into social policy, as in Nordic countries, by concentrating expenses on childcare services and working harder to achieve redistribution (increasing aid to underprivileged families and lowering aid to wealthy ones).
Paradoxically, though, the reform method appears quite improvisational, seeming to consist entirely in aid reductions, without any coherence or long-range vision. And it’s important to take into account the effect this could have on perceptions of family policy. Lastly, the decision to put the brunt of the effort to reduce and redistribute aid to families on families themselves (i.e., with children) without touching the "spouse or partner quotient" reduction, for example, may seem questionable.