PARIS – French President Francois Hollande wants more dads to stay home with their babies and more moms to get back to work faster.
On Friday, International Women's Day, Hollande, a never-married father of four, proposed legislation to encourage more men to take long-term paternity leave. The Socialist leader has made a point of promoting women's rights since his election last year, naming an equal rights minister and ensuring that women make up half of his Cabinet.
While most French mothers work, their salaries, pensions and career prospects can suffer from taking long maternity leave. Giving fathers more flexibility with parental leave could help make it easier for mothers to return to their jobs.
Hollande's proposal would allow fathers to take up to six months of paid leave after the birth of a child and extend other long-term parental leave benefits to fathers. Speaking at an equality conference Thursday night, the French president promised to get the idea written into a draft law by May.
French law currently allows fathers up to two weeks of paid paternity leave right after a baby is born. Mothers are allowed several weeks of maternity leave paid for by the employer.
Then, a parent can take further time off to take care of a child while receiving about €500 a month from the government family agency. With a first child, that parental leave is capped at six months; with two or more children, the leave can go up to three years. The family agency says just 3.5 percent of recipients of this parental leave subsidy are fathers.
Hollande's government is hoping to shrink the length of time the subsidy can go to mothers to encourage fathers to also put in for the leave. The legislation would also provide more state aid for single parents whose partners fail to pay child support.
The government is considering reducing the total amount of parental leave allowed from three years to two-and-a-half years, in order finance some extra six-month leaves for fathers — a move aimed at keeping costs down for a government struggling to trim spending.
The government also argues that the measure could keep women in the work force and theoretically boost the economy.
"You have to view this reform as part of a larger whole," the minister for equal rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, told RTL radio Friday. The aim, she said, is to "make it so that the employee, whether female or male, can better reconcile their personal life and their professional life."
French governments of left and right have long championed family-friendly policies, including public pre-schools and day care and child subsidies. That has helped keep women in the work force and the French birthrate steady — at about two children per woman — while other European countries have seen sharp declines in recent decades.
But France is still a society with a strong conservative strain and plenty of sexist attitudes despite a reputation for sexual freedoms.
French officialdom talked about little but women's rights Friday, with the prime minister signing an agreement to given women equal opportunities in public service, the defense ministry urging more "feminization" of the army, and Paris City Hall naming a dozen streets and squares after influential women.
Hollande's push follows a recent move in Britain that extended paternity leave from two weeks for a new father to include a new option of 26 weeks more — as long as the other partner has returned to the workplace. Mothers can take up to a year of leave, with up to 39 weeks usually paid for by the employer, though not at full pay.
Neighboring Germany offers a complex formula that allows fathers two months of paid parental leave. Either parent can take up to three years off with their job guaranteed upon return, but only part of that time is paid.
Sweden takes things even further. Swedish couples can share 16 months of parental leave, providing that it's split so that one of them — normally the man — takes at least two months. The government pays 80 percent of the homebound parent's wages, up to a ceiling, and sometimes employers pay more on top of that.