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European Countries Try to Stimulate Higher Birth Rates

With just a few exceptions, birth rates across the European Union have been declining steadily for decades. Economists warn of the consequences - a dwindling workforce bankrolling a growing elderly population. But from Paris, Lisa Bryant reports for VOA that European governments are awakening to their reproduction problems - and scrambling to put pro-baby policies in place.

French university professor Nathalie Martiniere gave birth to her son Francois six months ago, and has been on a combination of maternity leave and summer vacation ever since. In September, she will return to her job as university professor in the city of Limoges, commuting the 215 miles by train from Paris four days a week. But Martiniere has found a nanny to take care of Francois full time.

"I do not think it is easy to raise a child and work at the same time if you are a woman in Germany, for example," said Nathalie Martiniere. "In France, it is much easier because we have this system with fairly acceptable daycare - creche ... or nannies. And in that case, it is true you get help from the government to choose to have someone to care for your child at home or if you put your child in a creche."

With an average of two children per woman of childbearing age, France has the highest birth rate in the 27-member European Union. The reason experts say is decades of pro-baby policies that include cheap health care, affordable and available child care, tax breaks, and generous maternity leaves.

One beneficiary is 39-year-old MaryClaire King, an American mother of three who has been living in France for nearly two decades. The benefits for being a mother here, she says, are far better than any of her working friends get in the United States.

"A lot of them say, 'It cannot be possible ... that you have this health [and child] care system," saidMaryClaire King. "It is all going to fail, you will see.' Some of them act as if France is going to go blub, blub, blub ... as if France is going to sink into the Atlantic Ocean because it is just too good to be true. But it has not in the 16 years I have been here.

But France is an exception to the rule in Europe.

Nordic countries like Norway and Denmark also have policies like subsidized child care and parental leaves that favor working families, but mothers in many other European countries have difficulty balancing children and jobs.

A demographer at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, Francesco Billari says France has different policies for working mothers.

"Policies that do not work are policies that are based on the traditional view of the family," said Francesco Billari. "Policies that are trying to push mothers away from the labor market - like giving them a small monetary prize to stay at home and take care of the kids."

In a 2005 study, the E.U. executive branch warned that falling fertility rates could hurt the region's economy, living standard and relations between the generations in the coming years.

The head of the social policy division at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mark Pierson, agrees.

"A decline in the population imposes costs," said Mark Pierson. "And clearly Europe is going to have to cope with them. There is nothing that can be done now to avoid a declining work force in a lot of countries."

European governments are waking up to that reality. Germany has one of the lowest birth rates in the European Union, but Family Affairs Minister Ursula von de Leyen - a mother of seven - has pushed to make babies a priority. The government has drafted a plan to increase the number of kindergarten spots and passed legislation offering further tax breaks to families.

Meanwhile, Italy and Spain are among several European countries offering cash bonuses to encourage mothers to have more children. One mayor of an Italian village even upped the ante, offering a $15,000 baby bonus on top of the government's $1,500 rate.

But experts like the OECD's Pierson believe paying to have children may not be the best policy.

"Pure pro-natal policies - giving people a baby bonus if they have more children and so on - it has an effect, but it is really marginal," he said. "It is not a very effective way of encouraging fertility. The way you really encourage women to have more children is to help them work more."

The French benefits, including tax breaks for children and child care, helped tip the balance for MaryClaire King to have more children. She even left her job for three years when she she gave birth to her third son - with the guarantee she could return at equal pay.

"The mindset at the work place is very understanding that if you are having children and things it does not mean you are an incompetent employee," she said. "I was not penalized in terms of career advancement in ways I suspected I would have been."

Today, King has decided to become a stay-at-home mom in Paris - and to fulfill another dream, to become a full-time author.