Family policy has a long history in France, and fertility has traditionally been a political concern. Compared to other OECD countries, public investment in families with children is relatively high. In 2009, when France spent about 3.8% of GDP on family benefits, cash payments, and services and tax breaks for families, the country had the highest investment level in the OECD, which had an average spending level of 2.9%.
This situation is the result of a long historical process in which a compromise was struck between various political ideologies and objectives. This compromise remains rooted in a dual historical tradition: a set of family policies that began with the protection of children and assistance to children of deprived families, and a post-World War II framework of social protection designed to safeguard the incomes of families with children (and of large families in particular) (Damon, 2006). The issue of fertility has also traditionally been an underlying concern, but in the past decade it has been partly reshaped by the issue of work-life balance. As a consequence of these developments, France’s current set of family policies represent a compromise between different objectives, and have inevitably become somewhat ambiguous (Thévenon, 2006).
The family policies currently in place in France are characterised by four salient features. First, public support is still primarily designed to alleviate the impact of children on the standard of living of households, and thus benefits all families, including the richer ones. Growing concerns about issues such as employment, gender equality, and child poverty have, however, progressively reshaped the scope and content of family policies aimed at helping parents reconcile work and family life. Children now have access to childcare services and preschool from a very young age, and this early access is expected to benefit their development and school achievement, and to help their parents balance work and family life. Thus, France spends 1.1% of GDP on early education services, more than the OECD average of 0.7% of GDP. In recent decades, measures providing support for families have been shaped by the goal of dual choice: i.e., of providing parents (usually mothers) with children under pre-school age with the option of staying at home or going out to work, and of providing working parents of pre-school-age children with a range of childcare choices. Working parents with young children consequently benefit from a continuum of public support in the form of cash and services. By contrast, working parents generally receive limited support from their employer.
Measures providing support for working mothers were developed in an ambivalent context caught between two movements: i.e., a traditional movement that promoted family values and focused on large, male breadwinner families; and a feminist movement that advocated the individualisation of social rights and the participation of women in the labour market (Commaille et al., 2002; Revillard, 2006). The issue of reconciling work and family life became increasingly pressing during the 1970s and the 1980s. In response, the government made the provision of childcare services an objective alongside the education and development of children. Nevertheless, measures providing support for working women lacked a clear focus, mainly because existing family policies were retained, and new policies failed to take into account concerns about women‘s rights and gender equality (Strobel, 2004).
The development of childcare-related policies in France can be broken down into four main periods (Thévenon, 2013; Vanovermeir, 2012):
1) Before the 1970s: Policies encouraged the male breadwinner model, in which men worked and women stayed home. These measures included tax cuts for families and (from 1946 to 1972) a single wage allowance for households with a single wage earner.
2) The 1970s and the 1980s: Policies became progressively more supportive of mothers’ labour market participation, with the progressive abolition of the single wage allowance in 1972, the introduction of a childcare allowance for households with a working mother, and the development of public childcare services in the 1980s. However, in 1985 a parental education allowance for women with three or more children who left employment to care for their children was introduced. This allowance aimed exclusively at large families was unique in Europe.
3) The 1990s: Policies promoted the diversification of childcare with the development of public subsidies for both collective and individual home-based services. Parents employing a registered child-minder at home or at the child-minder’s home received an allowance covering the payment of social contributions for their employee; the childcare costs could also be deducted from taxable income. However, the parental education allowance was extended to mothers with two children in 1994, and to mothers with one child in 2004 (but for six months only). Thus, there was a dualism in childcare policies which had unequal effects across households.
4) From the mid-2000s until today: Policies have placed more emphasis on the diverse needs of families. Recent policy initiatives have included the following:
- The development of services for working parents with non-standard hours was set as a main supply-side objective.
- Specific centres with medical and social assistance have been developed since 1976, and services for families with children with disabilities or severe illness have been improved.
- Meeting the needs of low-income families and children with disadvantaged backgrounds (especially children of poor families and/or of migrant families) has been re-affirmed as a policy priority. In 2006, a law was passed that increased the availability of childcare services for families receiving social assistance by requiring municipalities to provide childcare places to the children of these families who are not already attending school. A minimum of one in 20 childcare places must be reserved for these children. These goals were reaffirmed in a 2009 law on social assistance, which also gave priority in access to childcare to children with parents who are currently undergoing a process of social inclusion (regardless of whether they are receiving benefits). Finally, the 2012 conference on poverty set the objective of delivering more childcare places for children from poor families, who are expected to represent at least 10% of all children in collective centres.
- There are many different kinds of childcare providers in France offering a wide range of services, from individual (home-based) to collective (centre-based) care. The governance of childcare availability and quality involves various actors, from municipalities to the central government. Reforms of the governance structure were carried out to encourage the diversification of services (i.e., to encourage the development of services for parents with non-standard working hours, to facilitate access for poor and/or migrant families, and to provide services for children with disabilities or severe illness). Recently, the supply of childcare services has been expanded through an increase in the number of child-minders.
As 48% of the country’s children under age three are now enrolled in some type of formal care, France has surpassed the Barcelona objective by almost 15%. Average weekly hours of attendance (31 hours) are also comparatively high, and above the 30-hour threshold. However, childcare arrangements are highly stratified by the labour market status of parents and by household income level. Very large regional disparities also remain as the result of differences in population composition and in municipal policies.
The key challenges for childcare policy-makers are to ensure that the recent expansion of childcare services (including of out-of-school care) takes into account possible future reforms of parental leave, and to ensure that the supply of services for parents with non-standard working patterns continues to increase. Reducing inequalities in the costs to families for the use of public centre-based services and home-based child-minders is another option under discussion. Addressing children with specific needs would also call for the adaptation of child-minder training schemes.
In this context, expenditures on childcare and early education services are relatively high as a percentage of GDP: 1.1% of GDP, compared to the OECD average of 0.7%. Public childcare centres are financed from a variety of sources. In 2008-2012 the breakdown of the funding is as follows: the Caisse Nationale d’Allocations Familiales and other state contributions, 33%; municipalities, 31%; local authorities, 7%; and private firms, 9% (up from 3% in the early 2000s).
Expenditures for families have been affected by the on-going economic recession. Shortly after the onset of the recession family and tax policy measures were used to smooth the effect of the recession: in 2009 taxes were reduced for low-income families and a one-time bonus of 150 euros was granted to families with school-age children.
More recently, however, an austerity package aimed at reducing expenditures by 2.14 billion euros by 2016 included cuts in public support for families. The French government has also decided to reallocate spending on families by cutting cash benefits while increasing in-kind forms of support. In June 2013, the following measures were passed:
- Benefits for families with children (the Quotient Familial) were reduced.
- PAJE payments supporting childcare were also reduced, but means-tested family supplements were increased.
At the same time, investments in childcare places were increased, with the objective of creating 275,000 new places in for children under age three within five years (including places in crèches, with child-minders, and in pre-schools).
Parental leave (including maternity protection)
Maternity leave (Congé de maternité) can be taken by pregnant employees for a total of 16 weeks; at least two weeks can be taken before the birth, while the remainder can be taken before or after. Pregnant women are obliged to take leave. Employees on leave receive 100% of their earnings, up to a ceiling of 3,129 euros a month. In the public sector, the leave is fully paid (i.e., there is no ceiling). In the private sector, some employers (particularly larger companies) pay in full, while others do not.
Maternity leave is funded by health insurance, which is in turn funded through contributions from both employees and employers. The total amount of this contribution is 15.45% of gross pay, including all social contributions, with employees contributing 2.35% and employers 13.10%.
Paternity leave (Congé d'accueil à l'enfant; literally “leave for looking after a child”) can be taken by fathers for up to two weeks (11 working days). The funding and payment structures of paternity leave are the same as for maternity leave. All employees and self-employed workers are eligible. Leave must be taken within four months following the birth.
Parental leave is granted to employees after a childbirth until the child reaches age three. Leave is an individual entitlement, i.e., both mother and father can take leave until the child is three years old. All employees are eligible for parental leave if they have worked at least one year for their employer before the birth of a child.
A childcare allowance, Complément de libre choix d’activité (CLCA), is available to all families who meet the eligibility conditions, regardless of whether the parents take parental leave. This is a flat-rate payment of 572.81 euros per month. If a parent works part time, the benefit is reduced.
For parents with two or more children, CLCA is paid until a child is three years old. However, in such cases a maximum of 30 months (24 months from January 2015) of CLCA payments are made to an individual parent; to receive the remaining payments, the other parent must take the outstanding period of leave.
For parents with only one child, CLCA is only paid until six months after the end of the maternity leave, unless both parents take leave, in which case each parent taking leave can receive up to six months of CLCA payments.
Large families with at least three children may qualify for another benefit, Complément optionnel de libre choix d’activité (COLCA). COLCA is a flat-rate payment of 819.14 euros, and is made on condition that one parent stops working completely. However, this benefit lasts for one year only. Large families can choose between receiving COLCA or CLCA.
Eligibility for CLCA becomes less restrictive as a parent has more children: for example, a parent with only one child must have worked for two years without a break before the birth to qualify, while a parent with two children is required to have worked for two out of the four years preceding the birth to qualify, and a parent with three children is only required to have worked for two out of the five years preceding the birth to qualify.
Both CLCA and COLCA are paid by the local CAFs (Caisse des allocations familiales), the family allowance funds that are part of the social security system and provide a wide range of benefits for families with children. Unlike maternity and paternity leave entitlements, which are funded by health insurance plans to which employees contribute, CAFs are financed by contributions from employers only, and amount to 5.4% of gross wages.
Cash benefits in the form of family allowances constitute a cornerstone of family policy in France. Parents automatically receive a family allowance after the birth of the second dependent child, and until the child reaches age 20. The monthly amount of the allowance varies according to the number of dependent children in the family.
After the birth of the third child, and if the two previous children are under age 21, the parents are entitled to additional family support amounting to 167.34 euros, subject to means testing.
Assistance is generally paid from the birth of the first child onwards, and may take a variety of forms. For example, parents may receive a single premium at the time of birth (923.08 euros) or adoption (1,846.15 euros), a three-year basic monthly allowance (PAJE) to help cover expenses related to raising and educating their children (184.62 euros), a family support allowance for children who receive no support from one or both of their parents (from 90.40 to 120.54 euros), and a back-to-school allowance for children ages 6-18, which is subject to means testing (360.47 euros for six- to 10-year-olds, 380.36 euros for 11- to 14-year-olds, and 393.54 euros for 15- to 18-year-olds).
Other forms of assistance a household may already be receiving, such as the housing benefit, can also be increased as more children are born. The housing benefit, which is calculated based on the size of the rent and the household’s income and active solidarity income, may be paid to parents older than age 25.
Other benefits allow parents of one or more children to take leave from work to care for a child under age 20 who is seriously ill, injured, or disabled; either on an occasional basis or through a reduction of their working hours. The size of these allowances varies greatly based on the make-up and resources of the household, as well as on the child's disability.
Tax breaks for large families
Large families also benefit from significant tax breaks. A specific principle of French tax law, the quotient familial , favours families with at least three children. The tax unit is not the individual but the household. Each household has a certain number of shares according to marital status and the number of children: e.g., a married couple is entitled to two shares, an additional half-share for the first two children, and an additional share per child after the third child. This mechanism generally results in a significant reduction in taxes, as the total household income is divided by the number of shares it is made up of, and the taxes are calculated on the basis of this income after adjustment.
Overall, transfers are larger for families with a youngest child aged under age three, and more generous for bigger, better-off families. Across all families, the average amount of child-related transfers is U-shaped: low-income families receive a higher amount per child than median earners, in part because of the means test for the basic PAJE allowance, but also because they receive higher amounts of social and housing assistance. By contrast, the tax relief mechanism of the quotient familial is clearly beneficial for richer households, and explains why the average amount of support per child is much higher for these households. In comparison with other OECD countries, the ratio of transfers received by low-income families relative to high-income families is relatively low in France, and represents about half of the OECD average (Adema and Thévenon, 2008).
The minimum age at which partners are permitted to marry is 18. The right to marry was extended to same-sex partners in 2013. Laws concerning marriage must be followed by both French citizens and foreign nationals. A marriage in France is recognised as valid in most other countries.
French law only recognises civil marriage. The marriage must be performed by a French civil officer (officier de l'état civil), which includes the mayor (maire), or a legally authorised representative of the mayor, such as the deputy mayor (adjoint) or a city councillor (conseiller municipal).
Religious ceremonies are optional, have no legal status, and may only be held after the civil ceremony has taken place (which may be, but need not be, on the same day)
The partners who are marrying must have been resident in a commune in France for a minimum of one month prior to the civil marriage. The civil marriage must take place in that commune. If both parties have been resident for over 30 days in different communes, the application for the civil marriage may be made to the mayor (town hall) of either commune.
French law requires the publication of banns at the mairie of the commune of residence 10 days prior to the civil marriage. Certain documents must be received and approved by the mairie before the banns may be posted. A mairie may require a complete marriage file 10 or more days prior to the publication of the banns.
A pre-nuptial (or pre-marital) agreement (the contrat de marriage) stipulates the terms of the marriage (régime matrimonial). If such an agreement is desired it must be drawn up by a notary public before the wedding; if a wedding proceeds with no pre-nuptial agreement the couple is automatically married in community of property (communauté de biens réduite aux acquêts). This means that the items each party owns personally before the marriage, and any property each party acquires after marriage through inheritance, remains his or her personal property. Property which is acquired during the marriage is owned equally by both parties.
The two most common marital regimes are being married out of community of property (séparation de biens) and a combination of separation and joint ownership (participation aux acquêts). A notary can advise the couple on which marital regime is best for their situation.
If there is a marital contract, the notary provides a Certificat du notaire or an Attestation du notaire which confirms its existence. This certificate must have been drawn up no more than two months prior to the marriage, and is submitted to the mairie along with the other documents.
The right to divorce was established in France in 1792, but was withdrawn in 1816 during the Restauration period. The right to divorce was re-introduced in 1884 by Naquet’s law, which primarily provided the right to divorce for just cause. The law of the 11 July 1975 extended the number of possible grounds, including divorce by mutual consent, or on the grounds of a “rupture of shared life”. Procedures for obtaining a divorce were further simplified by the law passed in 2004.
Since 1 January 2005, there have been four types of divorce procedure in France: one hostile, two amicable, and one for a prolonged separation:
- Divorce by mutual consent (divorce par consentement mutuel): This is the simplest, fastest form of divorce whereby both parties agree on all matters (e.g., the custody of the children, the contact with the other parent, and the division of assets). Before submitting a petition to the judge, the parties will have asked a notary to draft a document showing the agreed asset split.
- Accepted divorce (divorce accepté): This is put in place when the parties agree that a divorce is inevitable, but they have not reached an agreement on the division of assets or on questions relating to the children. The judge will therefore make these decisions for them.
- Divorce for just cause (divorce pour faute): This procedure involves a lengthy, often bitter battle to demonstrate that the other party is responsible for the breakdown in the marriage.4. Divorce for prolonged separation (altération définitive du lien conjugal): This divorce procedure may be used when a couple have lived apart consistently for more than two years (before 2005, the separation period was six years).
Established in 2001, the Pacte Civil de Solidarité (PACS) is a civil partnership which confers rights and obligations on registered couples, and thus represents a legal alternative to marriage. Specifically, PACS provides couples with rights to “mutual and material assistance” in the event of setbacks such as unemployment or illness. Both opposite-sex and same-sex couples are permitted to register a civil partnership, but no more than two people may enter into a PACS, and both partners must be at least 18 years old. In addition, the partners must have a common place of residence (although they are not required live together), and both must be citizens or legal residents of France. A PACS may also be registered at a French consulate elsewhere is the world, but in that case one of the partners must be a French citizen.
While a PACS does not confer citizenship or residency on a foreign partner, it is considered to be proof of a ”personal connection” to France, and is therefore taken into account when applying for residency.
The tax regime which applies to registered partners has been identical to that of married couples since 2007. While couples with a PACS partnership were given additional rights to inheritance in 2006, they do not yet have the same rights as married couples. In particular, partners covered by a PACS partnership cannot claim the same survivor benefits as married partners.
- Adema W., Thévenon O. 2008. Les politiques de conciliation du travail et de la vie familiale en France au regard des pays de l‘OCDE. Recherches et Prévisions 93 :51-72.
- Thévenon O., Adema W., Ali N. (2014), "Family policy in France and Europe : recent changes and effects of the crisis," 512.
- Damon J. 2006. Les Politiques Familiales, Que-sais-je ? 3776. Presses Universitaires de France.
- Commaille J., Strobel P., Villac M. 2002. La Politique de la Famille, Repères, La Découverte.
- Haut Conseil de la Famille (2013), “Point sur l’évolution de l’Accueil des enfants des enfants de moins de trois ans”, http://www.hcf-famille.fr
- Revillard A. 2006, Work/Family Policy in France : From State Familialism to State Feminism?, International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 20(2): 133-150.
- Strobel P. 2004. L‘État et les transformations de la famille, Cahiers Français Famille(s) et politiques familiales : 57-64.
- Thévenon O. (2013), Public Childcare Services in the European Union: The model of France, Report for the European Parliament, Directorate General for Internal Policies, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/workshop/join/2013/493037/IPOL-FEMM_AT(2013)493037_EN.pdf
- Thévenon O. 2010. Does fertility respond to work and family-life reconciliation policies in France? In Noriyuki Takayama and Martin Werding (eds.) Fertility and Public Policy: How To Reverse the Trend of Declining Birth Rates Cambridge MA and London UK: MIT-Press, chapter 10.
- Thévenon O. 2006. Régimes d‘Etat Social et convention familiale : une analyse des régulations emploi-famille. Economies et Sociétés, série Socio-Economie du Travail 27(6) :1137-1171
- Vanovermeir S. (2012), “L’accueil des jeunes enfants: axe majeur de la politique familiale française depuis les années 1970”, Dossiers Solidarité et Santé 31, DREES, Ministère des Affaires Sociales.