Can't cope without the metro
What would I do without the metro? Despite the crowds, the smells, the sticky heat, it remains a constant source of wonder and discovery for me. Just last week, sitting in a crowded train, my head bowed, my attention focused on the screen of my cellphone, like almost everybody else around me, I was wrenched from a virtual world back into the real by a woman's cry.
Rising above the whoosh and thud of the closing of the safety gate on the platform and the doors of the car where we sat, I could detect fear, panic, desperation in that voice. Then, as the train pulled out of the station, beyond a wall of standing commuters who, less fortunate than me, had not found a seat, there was commotion, as if a scuffle had broken out. I craned my neck to get a better look and discovered, not a fight, but a scene of wonder of almost biblical proportions!
There, in our midst (and soon everybody was talking, concerned, amazed, perplexed), sat an infant in its stroller, unruffled and alone. His mother, still back on the platform of the last station, had pushed the carriage into the metro car, but the doors closed before she made it inside herself.
Suddenly, all of us, indifferent strangers only a few instants before, were connected, transformed into a makeshift family, responsible for the little boy literally thrust into our care. We consulted, decisions were made and finally it was decided that the man who initially grabbed the carriage, saving the child from being crushed in the closing doors, would get off at the next station, to deliver the child into the hands of the transportation authorities. He was wearing a suit and tie, as were the two friends who accompanied him, respectable-looking types, "family men."
As they got off, we waved goodbye to the still serene toddler and his rescuers and went on discussing this exceptional happening. The presence of the child, our sense of concern for his well-being, had somehow united us.
Mulling over this experience, I've come to see it as a means for me to wrap my mind around one aspect of French society that, despite my 25 years in this country, has always remained foreign to me. I am talking about French "family policy," light-years away in its conception and practice from what Americans would call "child welfare."
For a few minutes in a crowded metro car, a group of commuters, perfect strangers, became a family, responsible for a child too young, perhaps too scared, to tell us his name. On a permanent basis, year-in, year-out, this is what French family policy asks of French society: Those of us who work and pay taxes constitute one big family, responsible for every child in France, where "family welfare," not child welfare, is at the system's heart.
It has been this way since 1932. At that time, based on a philosophy that made society responsible for the well-being of all its families, family welfare benefits, regardless of income or family situation, were first put in place.
And since then, this philosophy has stuck. The family welfare benefit known as the "allocation familiale" is not need-based, meaning a family with three children earning, let's say, $20,000 a year receives the same family allowance as one earning $85,000 - or more.
In concrete terms, in 2013, this means each family would receive about $380 in family welfare benefits each month. I suspect this idea is a bit unsettling to many Americans' minds, as it is to mine.
Since 1946, when French family welfare took an aggressively pro-birth turn, the more the merrier. For example, today, a family with six children receives about $1,000 a month in aid, more than double the benefits of a family with three. This may in part explain why, within the European Union, only the Republic of Ireland has a higher birth-rate than France.
Besides generous family welfare, France also offers an extensive network of municipal day care centers. In my neighborhood alone, there are more than 30, although that's not enough to keep up with the demand of young parents "contributing" to France's current baby boom.
In the street, in buses, in the metro, there are children and strollers everywhere. City playgrounds are packed; so are the elementary schools, where children can enter full-day kindergarten when they are 3 years old.
Yes, France takes care of its children and since 1981, the year Socialist Francois Mitterrand was elected president, more need-based aids have been put into place.
Besides the back-to-school allowance, created in 1974 to help low- and middle-income parents pay for the school supplies of children between the ages of 6 and 18 (about $450 per child in 2013), there are aids to help finance at-home day care, a family rent or mortgage allowance, as well as supplementary monthly benefits for low-income parents with young children.
Finally, once their birth is registered, all children are immediately covered by the national insurance plan of their parents.
In the past 20 years, on both sides of the political divide, there have been protests that France's generous family policy is more than the country can afford.
Most recently, in May, Francois Hollande's socialist government proposed adjusting family welfare benefits to family income. In other words, the rich would receive less, and perhaps the poor more, but, despite surveys showing 68 percent of the French in favor of such a measure, the government backed off, fearful of negative reactions at the polls.
Instead, tax laws have been changed so that, as of 2014, families earning more than $50,000 a year, will be paying more income tax than in the past, putting an end to a system of deductions largely favorable to well-off families.
In France, only one household in two pays any income tax at all. As a single, working woman, I pay a lot and sometimes it irks me to think I am contributing to the "welfare" of the wealthiest families of France.
On the whole, however, I am glad to pay and to participate in the creation of a safety net that benefits us all. And as my recent experience in the metro brought home to me, we are indeed all members of one big family known as humankind.
(Honicker can be reached at honicker.republican email@example.com)