FAMILYFAM LIFE IN FRANCE
French culture has strong roots in a rich family tradition. Kate McNally shines the spotlight on the bonds which keep the generations together in France
If France has one of the highest birth rates in Europe, it is certainly no coincidence. The country has favourable maternity rights, an affordable, well-organised childcare network, and a strong tradition of family life. As in most countries, there has been a shift in the family paradigm over the past 50 years, with larger numbers of working mothers and a greater tendency among younger generations to move away for work. That said, family ties and values remain an important part of French society.
Perhaps it is the size of rural France that explains how and why the country has long held onto its sense of family tradition. Certainly in rural areas, grandparents and even great-grandparents remain an integral part of family life, often regaled and respected for their status at the top of the hierarchy. Their values are thus passed down the generations so that even if younger family members live in a very different world today – often an always-on, always-connected world – they accept that they are expected to unplug and participate when in a wider family circle.
As in the UK and elsewhere, grandparents have also taken on a more active role in terms of looking after their grandchildren. However in France, they generally help out once the child is slightly older, due to flexible maternity rights (mothers can take maternity leave for up to three years if they wish) and highly subsidised childcare.
It is particularly notable that grandparents step into the breach during school holidays, helping out working parents but also continuing what has become a French family tradition. Many parents have fond memories of their own childhood holidays with grandparents, frequently in a long-ago inherited holiday house open to the extended family, and they are keen for their children to inherit the same bank of memories of a special time and place.
Although working conditions in France are favourable for employees in terms of job protection and rights, and women are given equal status in the workplace, there are relatively few mothers in full-time employment. Various factors, both negative and positive, could account for this: no school on Wednesday afternoons, the implications of a combined household income tax, a wide availability of part-time work and a desire to put children’s needs first, to name a few.
So while a high percentage of French mothers work, the number with full-time jobs is surprisingly low, which in turn has an impact on the influence of women in the workplace as not many occupy key positions within companies. It is also argued in some quarters that the beneficial maternity rights could prove a disadvantage to women workers in France, with bosses reluctant to promote someone to a higher level who could potentially be absent for long periods of time in the future.
The social fabric of France revolves very much around the family in everyday life, with weekend invitations to dine together with siblings or parents and festive occasions such as birthdays, Christmas and New Year celebrated en famille. This is especially notable in rural areas where younger generations are