Government announces increased paternity leave but abandons independent income for young people

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The annual Conference on the Family, held on 11 June 2001, was an opportunity for the French government to announce an extension of paternity leave from three days to two weeks, aimed at promoting greater equality between the sexes. However, the government did not satisfy expectations on the creation of an independent income for young people.

The Conference on the Family (Conférence de la Famille), chaired by the Prime Minister, is an annual symposium to which the government invites elected politicians, the social partners and representatives of family associations and other organisations. It is a high point of the year for the government, during which it announces new decisions, as well as the topics around which the following year's conference will be structured.

The current context for family policy is that, following the 1993-7 period when the search for cutbacks led successive governments to erode family and housing benefits, the current left-wing government, due to the relaxation of financial restraints, amended this policy from 1998 onwards. It concentrated its efforts mainly on increasing the supply of childcare, and on measures aimed at assisting low-income households. The June 2000 Conference on the Family saw an accentuation of this change in family policy. A substantial series of measures on support structures for families with small children was announced, including an increase in available crèche places, improvements in social benefits for employing childminders at home, and the introduction of leave to look after sick children and measures to foster the return to work of parents in receipt of the parental leave allowance (l'allocation parentale d'éducation). A very notable simplification and improvement of housing assistance was also decided. In total, these measures allowed the government to announce extra spending of over FRF 10 billion.

Two new priority areas for action were announced for the 2001 conference: "parental authority" and the situation of adult young people experiencing difficulties.

The 2001 Conference

At the 2001 conference, held on 11 June, the government had been expected to unveil measures aimed at solving the problem of young people under 25 with no entitlement to minimum income benefits because they have no family responsibilities. Several recent official reports have put forward the idea of creating an allowance for this group, tied to either work or training. Such reports have been issued by the National Economic Planning Agency (Commissariat Général au Plan) (FR0103139F), the "Economic and Social Council" (Conseil Economique et Social) and the Centre for the Study of Income and Social Cohesion (Centre d'Etude des Revenus et de la Cohésion Sociale).

In the latest round of discussions on the issue, the government ultimately delayed making any decision on granting young people more financial independence, with the exception of a few minor measures relating to housing and integration into the workforce. It preferred to refer the matter to the forthcoming National Commission on the Independence of Young People (Commission nationale pour l'autonomie des jeunes). The establishment of this Commission, proposed by Communist Party deputies and endorsed by the National Assembly, will soon be debated by the Senate.

The main decisions which were announced at the 2001 conference were as follows:

  • paternity leave will be extended from three days to two weeks. During leave, fathers will receive 80% of their gross pay (up to a ceiling), which is the equivalent of maintaining the net salary. This pay will be funded by the family allowances branch of the social security system. The objective is to favour "parental parity" by giving greater recognition to the role of the father. The government forecasts a 40% take-up rate of this leave by fathers;
  • the policy decided in 2000 of aiming to increase the volume of crèche-type facilities for young children will be strengthened through funding targeted at operating expenses and the costs of investment;
  • an increase in housing benefit, which began in early 2001, will be continued; and
  • the reform of civil family law, begun in 1998, will continue. Several items of draft legislation are currently being debated in parliament, which seek to bolster the inheritance rights of surviving spouses, extend the options regarding the choice of a child's surname, guarantee the right of access to information about one's personal origins, reform the practice of mothers giving birth anonymously in hospital and leaving the babies for adoption, and create a "right of parental authority" aimed at instigating greater equality between the parents

Reactions

The National Union of Students of France - Independent and Democratic (Union Nationale des Etudiants de France - Independant et Démocratique, UNEF-ID) - the main students' union - and the National Child Benefits Union (Union nationale des allocations familiales, UNAF) - the umbrella organisation for family associations, responsible for representing family interests - expressed regret that the establishment of an income for young people had been postponed. The CFDT and CFTC trade union confederations, however, had been reluctant to support any such income.

Among the unions, the extension of paternity leave met with the approval of CFE-CGC, CFDT, CFTC and CGT. CFDT, CFTC and CGT also welcomed the government's declared willingness to extend the supply of places in crèche-type childcare. However, CGT wished to see a greater effort being made, and CFDT is seeking the recognition of a specific status for registered childminders. CFE-CGC has called for the AGED (Allocation de garde d'enfant à domicile) benefit for parents employing a "nanny" at home (a form of childcare especially favoured in practice by well-off dual-income households) should be improved.

Several parties have raised objections about the use of the surplus in the family branch of the social security system. UNAF, CGT, CFDT and CFTC expressed regret that these surpluses are regularly redirected to fund new measures or measures previously funded by the state or other sectors of social welfare. The consequence of these transfers is seen to be an impediment to the implementation of a more ambitious family policy.

From the viewpoint of the MEDEF employers' confederation, the plans outlined by the government, particularly on paternity leave, "are unfunded" - ie it is concerned that this leave is being funded by the child benefit branch of the social security system, basically out of contributions levied on pay. It is also opposed to this extension of paternity leave, estimating that the days freed up by the current introduction of the "35-hour working week (FR0001137F)" could have been enough to cover the need for paternal time off. MEDEF announced its intention to open up within the current talks on the "overhaul of industrial relations" (FR0102134F) a new section dedicated to the "modernisation of family benefits".

The CGT-FO union confederation did not issue any response to the Conference on the Family.

Commentary

Although the government has justified its refusal to grant an independent income to young people by its preference for prioritising "access to employment and housing", this decision can also very probably be explained by its reputedly excessive cost.

While the 2000 Conference had manifested a certain level of ambition, if only in its declared financial commitments, the Conference on the Family 2001, by contrast, gave the impression of a policy running out of steam, with less than FRF 5 billion worth of new spending announced. The government opted for greater budgetary stringency and its margins for manoeuvre are correspondingly narrower because the continuance of prior commitments (childcare, housing allowances, etc) has absorbed the majority of extra expenditure. In this context, the government has sought cheaper and more politically advantageous measures. Extending paternity leave has enabled the government to achieve this aim, as this decision has been endorsed by high levels of public approval (73% according to one poll). Even though the real impact of this measure remains uncertain, its announcement has further bolstered the "modern" image that the government has forged for itself by means of its numerous reforms in family law beginning in 1998.

Family benefits now seem to be emerging as the "poor relations". Raised more or less in line with inflation, their level as a proportion of household income has been in steady decline. However, since the resources of the child benefit branch of the social security system are basically levied on salaries (social security contributions and the CSG universal social contribution - FR9710170F), there is, on the face of it, room for manoeuvre, especially during a period of economic growth. Yet in a recession, as in a recovery, all governments have preferred to use extra social security resources to fund measures previously financed through the state budget or out of other funds in the social welfare system. Employers and unions have regularly stated their opposition to these continual withdrawals from family policy. But is there a real willingness among the social partners to oppose them? Or would they ever be able to? (Antoine Math, IRES)

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