Liberté, égalité, paternité: the dastardly French are at it again. They’ve always known how to hit us when we’re down. In the same week that Michael Gove announced plans to cede Kent to the EU, President Macron said he was doubling paternity leave. From July next year, new fathers in France will get 28 days off, seven of which will be mandatory, making it one of the more generous schemes in Europe. Macron said parents should have “more equality in sharing the responsibility from day one”. British fathers get just two optional weeks.
The French president doesn’t have children of his own, and I expect most leaders in that position would think it was enough simply to offer the paid leave. But Macron, canny as ever, knows that if presented with the option of a paid week with their newborn, many partners would prefer to go to the office for free.
Brits often don’t have children until their 30s, by which time you have hopefully reached a happy plateau of adulthood where you are no longer obliged to do things you’re bad at. In your free time, if you don’t want to do karaoke or play rugby, you don’t have to. At work, you’re established enough that people no longer squint at you wondering if they can ask for a latte. One of the great myths new fathers like to tell themselves is that the office, with its coffee and money and mates and pints and respect, isn’t fun.
Into this hard-fought equilibrium comes a screaming fleshy reminder of your incompetence. Having spent the past six months more or less locked down with a baby, I’ve found the time interesting and constructive, but I’m not sure my wife or child would agree. It’s hard to conceive of a more dramatic crash course in your own uselessness. After about half an hour with our daughter, my wife seemed to know exactly what to do, like a penguin sliding into the sea. Meanwhile I bumbled around, a large, well-meaning but simple work-experience boy, seemingly on a mission to prove why those roles are mostly unpaid. As with all interns, my duties quickly boiled down to a few low-risk chores: take out this bag full of bags of poo; assemble this cot; turn off that PlayStation.
There’s no evidence I’ll improve with time. To judge by photos that emerged from his holiday in Scotland, even the prime minister, Postman Paternity himself, still can’t put a sling on, despite Wilfred being his at-least sixth child. In his defence, Boris Johnson was slow to the modern-dad party. As late as March, he was uncertain whether he would change any nappies, but by the summer he admitted to having done quite a few during lockdown. Maybe “absent dad” is not the vote winner it once was. Or perhaps he is a reformed character, having twigged that paternity and fatherhood are not quite the same thing, and we can expect to see him in future sitting in the front row at violin recitals.
It’s especially galling that the new directive comes from France. British parents are neurotic to the point of psychosis about rival childrearing approaches, especially Scandinavian and French strategies. Parenting is a key battleground in Britain’s endless identity dilemma, caught between wanting to be sophisticated, cultured and sexy, like Europe, but also industrious, ingenious and rich, like America. As the books tell us, French women don’t get fat, and French children don’t throw food. Instead they sit immaculately through long meals, breaking their silence only when invited to recite a bit of Verlaine. Across the Atlantic, on the other hand, every child is an Egyptian-style god-child, fat, overindulged and sent to therapy from the moment they’re potty-trained, yet somehow still able to make a billion quid by the time they’re 25.
“French fathers are less indulgent than their English counterparts,” says an English friend who has a French father and husband. “They are very worried about the Anglo-Saxon l’enfant roi. My husband tells me I should pause before seeing our daughter if she cries. He says if I don’t she’ll never learn to be independent. I’m not sure how ‘independent’ a five-month-old can be.”
As usual we can blame Rousseau, the grandfather of French parenting, who wrote that the surest means of making a child miserable “is to accustom him to getting everything”. You can’t imagine the French looking at our current leaders and feeling anything but pure justification. Thanks to this new ruling, French parents will be able to feel even more smug, while British parents descend further into paranoia. It’s telling that the best advice I’ve been given on children applies equally to France: never forget, they are the enemy.