French View: Why it's easier being a mother in France

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LAURE has just had her first baby. A trainee teacher, aged 24, she is due to return to work in April, when Lea is 12 weeks old. Since her husband is a student and the family relies on her income, she is mapping out her campaign to find a child-care place for her baby.

The French system boasts a wide range of reasonably-priced, pre-school care facilities. The problem - as always in France - is that you have to know the ins and outs of a baffling system. Places are highly-prized and hard to come by. Legend has it that it is harder to find the right place in a creche in France than to get into university.

Laure said: "You need to be organised and start place-hunting early on, especially in Paris. I began looking when I was four months pregnant. We want a place in a city creche, but have been told that none is available before September."

Between April and September Lea will go to an "assistante maternelle" (child-minder), which is far more expensive - about pounds 18 a day as opposed to pounds 8 in a creche. "Even then it's the same thing - we won't know whether a place is available until very late in the day. We are left playing a waiting game."

Working women like Laure have five basic childcare options within the French state system. In Paris, very young children with two working parents can be sent to city creches from the age of 10 weeks. A parent who is unemployed at the time of admission has two-and-a-half months to find a job, after which time the child will be "excluded" from the creche.

Payment operates on a sliding scale of pounds 1.10 to pounds 8.90 a day, according to income. While there is no official means test, parents must submit evidence of their income, as all establishments are required to balance the number of low and high income families. Fees are variable according to how many children attend (the more children you have, the cheaper it is).

The "assistante maternelle agreee liberale " (registered childminder operating in her own home) is a more expensive possibility, but the most favoured method of childcare in France. Two out of three children under the age of three are looked after by childminders.

Any parent, regardless of income, can claim benefits to cover the cost of the childminder's National Insurance charges, and claim 25 per cent of the childminder's fees (up to pounds 1,500 per child) against tax.

Mothers working only part-time can turn to "Haltes-Garderies" . Children (from 0-6 years) are admitted for three sessions a week (12 hours in total). Single parents and students can have five sessions a week.

Fourthly, there is the state nursery school (La Maternelle). Admission is from the age of two, on the strict condition that the child is potty- trained. In practice, priority is given to older children, because of a shortage of places. Nursery school is free for all, but less well-off families, single-parent families and families with two working parents go to the top of the waiting lists.

Finally, parents wishing to have their child looked after at home can claim the "Aide a la Garde de l'Enfant a Domicile" (Aid for looking after children at home), which the Socialist government cut last year. The AGED, available to two working parents earning less than pounds 30,000,now provides a tax break of up to pounds 3,600 a year per child under three and less for older children and wealthier parents.