Childcare policy and work-life balance in France: brief overview and testimonials

Michèle FORTÉ (Associated Professor, Labor Institute-BETA, University of Strasbourg.)

France has a longstanding commitment to promote work-life balance. The question arises regularly since the early 80’s. This issue has emerged at the same time as the growth of female activity1 whereas it did not arise when the workforce was predominantly male. It is nowadays a crucial issue with the Covid 19 pandemic and the development of remote work.
Being a parent has more consequences on the situation of women than on that of men. For example, the number of children has an important effect on female participation rate but has little to no effect on those of men. They are much more likely than men to report reducing their work time or changing their working hours. However, men report almost as many difficulties in reconciling work and family responsibilities as women2.
Improving the balance between family and professional life includes the development of childcare, especially for young children. On paper, there are many options and different ways of taking care of children less than 3 years, who are not attending school. Thus, we can mention: care in a nursery or by a childminder, care in the parents’ home by a person hired for this purpose, care by one or both parents, who have adapted their professional activity or who do not have a professional activity accordingly (with or without parental leave); care by relatives, usually grandparents3.
In reality, in most cases (64%), children are looked after by their parents, and 4% by grandparents or family. In comparison, 29% of the children under 3 years are the responsibility of professional childcare services.

Family policies
Promotion of work-life balance by the state is very important through the family policy. It includes4 all measures taken by the public authorities to help families raise their children and cope with the financial burden they represent. These measures can take several forms: benefits paid to parents, such as family allowances; benefits with a family dimension, such as housing allowances; public subsidies to facilities that provide services, such as day-care centers; tax incentives ; parents ‘education allowance combined with parents ‘education leave…

How to improve work life balance and reduce gender inequality?
Reconciliation of work and family life is now mainly the responsibility of mothers. Several options are proposed5 to improve work live balance and reduce women’s childcare responsibilities: extending paternity leave, encouraging part-time work, and in particular part-time work shared between parents, encouraging time adjustments for families. The paternity and childcare leave, which is open to all employees regardless of their length of service and type of employment contract, has been recently modified. From July 1, 2021, the duration of paternity leave is increased from 11 to 25 days.

Nicolas: Professor of Law at the University of Strasbourg, he has two daughters, 21 and 18. His wife is also professor and gets research and teaching positions in the faculty of Law of Strasbourg. Both of them work full time. When the children were under three, a nanny kept them at home. From the age of three, they attend the nursery school, and a baby sitter looked after them until the parents returned from work.
The academic work is particular, with some home-based work, opportunities for self-organization. “We have never taken a day off work for a sick child, and we have always organized ourselves”. The academics have time recurs as a leitmotif. “Because of this representation, children were not given priority in the canteen, for example”.
The existing measures to help parents have been seriously lacking in the French university: no nurseries, no day care centers. In fact, there’s nothing to organize around childhood”.
For the young teacher-researcher parents, the situation is sometimes difficult with young children.”In this case, teaching is provided, but research may be the adjustment variable”.

Tiphaine: Research Assistant in law at the University of Strasbourg, she has two boys, 6 year old twins. Her husband is an engineer and has his own company. Under 3 years old, childcare was complex: two days at the public nursery, “with a registration at two months of pregnancy”, two days with parents and parents-in-laws. “And the last day, it was me who took care of it having reorganized my working hours”. From kindergarten, “they went to the canteen at noon and to the after-school program until I came to pick them up after my work”. On Wednesdays, the parents and the family took care of them.
The distribution of tasks in the couple is not balanced: “I entirely take care of family and childcare responsibilities”. Despite that, she manages to do everything and to balance private and professional life: “Everything is done but with less deepening”. “It’s a permanent race and a race in the head: you have to think about everything, all the time”. In regards to work, it is perhaps the research that is more affected: “that’s what takes time, without immediate results”.

My own experience: I am associated professor in economics at the Labor institute at the University of Strasbourg. I have one son, 29. My husband was a public sector executive when our child was young. Both of us work full time. When our child was under three, he went to the nursery. It was rather convenient because of the range of child minding hours available (for example from 7:30 AM to 6 :30 PM), the possibility of being hosted 11 months out of 12 and last but not least the professionalism of the staff and the quality of the care. From the age of 3, he entered the kindergarten, and the organization becomes a little more complicated. For lunch, he went twice to the canteen and twice at home or in the family. On Wednesdays, when there is no school, I took care of it. In addition, a baby sitter picked him up from school at the end of class at 4:30 and stay until we got home.

I think that research, which requires concentration over time, suffers the most when you are a teacher/researcher with a young child.

1The proportion of women in the labour force has reached 48% in 2020, 13 points more than in 1975. Among these 14 million of women, over 8.5 are in the age group 25-49 years.

2Cf. Insee Première n°1795, Mars 2020

3HCFEA (2019), « Voies de réformes des congés parentaux dans une stratégie globale d’accueil de la petite enfance », Haut Conseil de la famille, de l’enfance et de l’âge.

4Cf. Études et Résultats, Drees, N°1126, Octobre 2019

5HCFEA (2019), cf. supra.