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LIVING IN FRANCE

Family-centred society: What it’s really like being a parent in France

From schools to food, behaviour to sports, being a parent in France has its own unique quirks - we asked dad-of-three James Harrington to explain what raising children here is really like (apparently French kids do throw food).

Family-centred society: What it's really like being a parent in France
Photo: Laurent Peignault / Unsplash

We moved to southwest France from England in 2009, with our daughter, who was three at the time. We have since added two boys, as well as two cats and two dogs.

This is our experience of being parents and parents-to-be here.

French attitudes to children

France is a family-centric nation. It starts with an official letter, sent to all parents-to-be that contains a contract of sorts between parents and the state. 

It places on parents the responsibility of raising their children to the best of their ability, and in turn it promises to provide good schools and healthcare, access to leisure activities and parks for growing children to play in. 

Your opinion as to how successful France is at holding up its side of the bargain depends on where you live, but we have no complaints where we are and plenty of reasons to be grateful. Parenting is some job, and this letter is an early reminder that support is out there.

That support extends to generous child benefits, additional tax breaks, a useful ‘bonus’ to pay for things like a pram, cot, clothes and so on, access to completely free healthcare for the mother during and after pregnancy, free early healthcare for the newborn – and so on.

Parenting styles

The stereotypical notion of children in France is that they’re treated as tiny adults, expected to behave in an appropriate manner at family get-togethers or at restaurants, while eating smaller versions of what their parents eat and not hollering for the ketchup. 

This is not entirely accurate. French children can be as wild and unruly as any child anywhere: just watch them at birthday parties, when they’re jacked up on sweets and E-number drinks. 

What you soon see is that French parents, on the whole, don’t hold with helicopter parenting. They will happily sit and unconcernedly chat with friends while their kids wreak gentle havoc in the immediate vicinity. As long as nothing and no one gets broken, French parents generally let children just get on with entertaining themselves.

Don’t make the mistake of believing this means they don’t care. They do. They very much do. 

Pregnancy and post-pregnancy care

Our oldest son was born less than a year after we arrived, so we had a lot to learn about the French healthcare system, fast. We’d completed the three-month minimum requirement to allow us access the French state health system via the carte vitale, but were still going through the process when my then-pregnant wife needed urgent hospital care. 

We weren’t properly on the healthcare system and didn’t have top-up health insurance at the time. Staff at the hospital were kind enough to help sort the latter quickly enough to cover the cost of my wife’s hospital stay and our cards came through soon after.

READ ALSO Pregnancy and maternity care: Having a baby in France

With our second boy, things could not have been more different. It was three years later, we had a handle on the healthcare system, our cartes vitales were in order.

For various reasons, my wife didn’t think she was pregnant until she felt our baby move. By that time, she was five months gone. The early stages of pregnancy care were moot. In fact, the most difficult part was setting the ball rolling so late. 

But, each time, the care my wife and our children received was a world away from that which we got in the UK.

For the first three days or so, mother and baby remain in hospital under the care of the perma-calm nurses – who know everything about the health of both mum and newborn. Those shift-swap briefings must be intense. Doctors check in daily to make sure everything is going as it should.

READ ALSO Having a baby in France: 10 lessons learned

Then there’s what’s known as hospitalisation at home. New mums and babies who are doing well enough to go home are allowed to do so after three days, under strict instruction to do nothing but look after their child and themselves. Don’t think this isn’t enforced. It is. It is checked and confirmed daily by a visiting midwife who has mastered the stern stare. 

Other halves – you have work to do. Your job is to look after your partner’s every – every – need; care for older offspring, make sure the house is clean and tidy, and everyone’s fed and watered. And, yes, your efforts are noted. This is why you’re off work.  

Midwife visits continue for some weeks. Then there are regular trips to your GP for further checks and vaccines – these days there are 11 mandatory vaccinations for children in France (this does not include the Covid vaccine). It’s up to you to keep track – but schools may refuse children who are not up to date with their vaccinations.

Maternity and paternity leave

Pregnant employees are entitled to a total 16 weeks paid maternity leave, which is split into two parts – six weeks pre-natal and 10 weeks post-natal. Women pregnant with twins or triplets are entitled to longer maternity leave.

Paternity leave is slightly more complicated. The allowance is 25 days, rising to 32 in case of multiple births. 

It is important to note fathers are also entitled to three days’ mandatory birth leave. This is separate to their paternity allowance. 

The first four days of a father’s paternity leave must be taken immediately after their mandatory birth leave. Confusingly, the latter is calculated in working days, the former in calendar days. But, basically, the father of a child born on a Saturday calculates their birth leave from the following Monday, and adds their four-day immediate paternity leave after that.

The remaining 21 days must be taken within the first six months of a new arrival. It can be split into two periods, but the minimum duration is five calendar days.

Things are slightly different, too, for self-employed parents. Best advice is to check on the Ameli website to confirm what you’re entitled to. 

Creche / school

The question of going back to work is tough for any new parent. But, many parents do need to go back to work. In England, where our childcare costs were more than our mortgage, this was tough. In France, where what you pay is calculated against your income, it was financially much simpler.

Our oldest son went to a childminder – a nounou – not far from where we lived. We paid about half of her monthly bill, the rest was covered by the government. For that, he was fed and looked after from just before 8am until close to 6pm.

From the age of three, he went, as our daughter had done a few years’ earlier and as is now mandatory, to the youngest class in the maternelle section at a local school.

Our second son went to a crèche run by the local authority. Because our income at the time was intermittent and quite low, fees were very low, but the care he received was top notch. The building – next to a school – had been knocked about a bit but the rooms were clean and tidy, the toys were old and worn but safe. And the staff were universally lovely.

As for schools, the cost of education is covered by the state out of taxes. It’s not perfect. You could, for example, easily argue there’s too much emphasis on testing and too much box ticking. State schools have their problems, like many other countries. 

Private education is affordable, certainly in comparison to other countries. About €1,500 will cover a school’s annual fees for day pupils. It’s widely assumed that children who go to fee-paying schools do better – probably because their parents are more financially invested. 

READ ALSO International v French schools – how to decide

Our experience of education in France is of fee-paying schools because that’s the path we were guided down early on. That we haven’t deviated from that path is the best indication that we’re happy with the education they’re getting and the sparky, energetic – and, yes, argumentative – young people they’re turning into.

Homework, too, happens. Even when it’s not supposed to. Younger children aren’t, officially, supposed to do homework – but don’t be surprised that they get some. Regularly. You can rage against the machine if you like.

We didn’t. We decided to sit with our children and help. We’ve learned a huge amount about France, its history and the French language that way – as well as a whole new way to do division. Maths, it turns out, isn’t maths. Or I’m old. To be honest, it’s probably the latter.

Schools can be good for parents, too. A number of friendships developed from school-gate acquaintances because our children knew their children. 

Food

It’s almost illegal not to mention food in articles like this about France. 

Children in France, on the whole, eat very well. School meals tend to be three, even four, courses. There’s occasional tat on the menu – even chicken nuggets do a job every now and then, and our youngest still likes them – but on the whole the food is nutritious and healthy. And affordable. 

Meals need to be good. School days are long – in part to fit in the two-hour lunchbreak which allows children to eat their meals without gulping them down, and to decompress after a busy morning conjugating verbs and learning about Charlemagne. 

READ ALSO Do French kids get the best school lunches in the world?

There’s also a lesson here about food.

Children learn about nutrition at a young age. They’re expected to understand what a healthy diet involves, and what they eat at school shows the way. It really is quite the thing.

Holidays

School holidays – particularly the grands vacances, which last eight weeks every summer – can strike fear into the hearts of many a working parent, wondering how to entertain their bundles of joy, and stop them turning completely feral, while holding down a job.

But, France has got parents’ backs. Every town and city has ‘maisons des jeunes et de la culture’ – MJCs –  community centres that take in local children and entertain every drop of energy out of them from around 7am to 7pm, five days a week, every school holiday. 

For a few euros a day, the MJCs’ vetted staff look after youngsters aged from three to 15, sometimes older, bombarding them with activities from sport to cooking, art to dancing, often with an over-arching theme for the duration of the holidays. Morning and afternoon snacks, and a typical French three or four-course lunch included. 

Everything is means-tested, too, based on a ‘quotient familiale’ (QF), a figure calculated based on the previous year’s income tax declaration. The higher the QF, the less you pay, which means kids from households less well off than ours can have something to look forward to a few days a week – it’s available full or part-time – and their parents get a break. 

Trips are offered regularly. Our oldest has been skiing with both her school and the MJC. It cost us €60 all-in. Our boys have both been on summer week-long camping trips, with activities morning, afternoon, and evening, for about the same price. 

They’ve been on day-trips to theme parks and zoos, hiked in mountains and canoed down rivers, been introduced to fencing, horse-riding, and archery, had a go at golf and done a whole host of activities we couldn’t hope to afford or have the time to organise while we worked for a fraction of the real-world cost. 

MJCs are everywhere. There are five MJCs in our 40,000-plus population town, each welcoming around 150 children each, holiday in, holiday out. 

Sports / activities

Contrary to what some may say, there is sport in school. As well as lessons, children from 11 onwards can use some of their lunch period trying out sports as part of the national UNSS scheme.

But, it is equally true to say that most children get their sport through clubs in their town. Early September, there may be a large-scale event nearby in which the – hopefully many – sports institutions in your town tout for members for the next year. 

Our daughter has done fencing – she qualified for a national event three years running before deciding she wanted to stop – and boxing. Our oldest son does rugby and judo. Our youngest hasn’t yet gone for anything. Swimming may be an option, who knows?

As part of the registration process, your child may need a medical certificate from your GP confirming that there’s no reason for them not to take part in their chosen sport, and they may also need insurance. Membership covers registration with the national body overseeing the sport, and – for less well-off households – part of the costs may be covered by an annual check, while many organisations allow for monthly payments if necessary.

Even so, with the cost of living rising, finding the couple of hundred extra euros a year needed for membership, plus any kit, and travel costs – honestly, you can go all over to tournaments – soon adds up. 

Outdoor stuff

Part of the ‘contract’ sent to parents-to-be states that outdoor spaces for them to enjoy with their children will be provided. They are. And France, naturally, has plenty of outdoor space for everyone to enjoy, from parks to beaches and lakes to mountains and rivers, and wide open fields. 

It’s stupidly easy to spend time outside in France. The weather and the views almost demand it. Summer festivals and events drag you to squares and parks. And kids love to charge around, make one-time friends at the park, and run around playing games of their own devising. It would be rude not to let them.

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