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By Natalie Huet
PARIS (Reuters) - Frenchmen will be encouraged to take more parental leave and state firms will have to bring more women onto their boards under plans unveiled on Wednesday that aim to improve gender equality in a country that trails its developed-world peers.
The draft law, intended to bolster women's careers and their contribution to the economy at a time of flagging growth, will extend to France's state firms a quota that requires women to make up 40 percent of private company boards by 2017.
"Inequalities are everywhere, so we have to fight them everywhere," Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the minister for women's rights in the Socialist government and architect of the bill, told Reuters before presenting the bill to the cabinet.
France, which views itself as the birthplace of human rights, is famed for a generous day-care system which enables women to have more babies than anywhere else in Europe save Ireland and yet stay in work.
Overall, however, it ranks badly in gender equality, with women earning 27 percent less than men on average compared to 16 percent less across OECD countries, due mainly to a high concentration of women in low-paid or part-time jobs.
For women and men doing similar jobs, women are paid 10 percent less.
Vallaud-Belkacem said French women were held back because they overwhelmingly interrupt their careers to care for children in a country where only 3 percent of men take parental leave, defined as state-funded time off following the initial paternity or maternity leave period.
Incentives in the law to lift that figure aim to follow Germany, which has raised its rate of parental leave take-up to 20 percent from 3 percent in 2007 using similar measures.
"Men don't dare ask their company for a few months' leave to take care of a child," said Vallaud-Belkacem, who is also the government's spokeswoman.
"We need to remove this stigma because female workers want to reconcile their personal lives with their professional lives," she said.
The law will help single mothers by having the state compensate for unpaid alimony which it can then reclaim from the income of non-compliant fathers.
It will also double fines for political parties failing to present as many female as male candidates in elections.
France ranked 57th in the World Economic Forum's 2012 Gender Gap Report, trailing the United States and most of Europe but also Tanzania and Kazakhstan. Nearly 84 percent of French women aged 25-54 work, but they also spend twice as much time on domestic tasks as men. ($1 = 0.7671 euros)
(Editing by Gareth Jones)