Biden Can Learn Some New Lessons From America’s Oldest Ally


French President Emmanuel Macron is in Washington this week to meet his US counterpart, have a state dinner and accept an award on behalf of a baguette. But France is not just about food and wine. It has real lessons to offer the US in general and President Joe Biden in particular.

One of the most surprising is France’s employment rate. Among the prime working age, between 25 and 54, it is consistently higher than in the United States. For young people it is different, mostly because of France’s more generous higher education funding. For the elderly, it is different because of the French tradition of early retirement.

For those in their mid-20s to mid-50s, however, the supposedly lazy French are actually more likely to work. It’s not 100% clear why, but it undermines the widespread American belief that the stingy US welfare state encourages higher labor force participation rates. Most French workers pay higher taxes than Americans, and the French enjoy better health security and childcare assistance whether they work or not – but they are more likely to work.

In these inflationary times, raising labor force participation seems like a better solution than intended for Fed-induced layoffs. And the French lesson seems to be that the keen US focus on labor market flexibility is not delivering the benefits it should. Perhaps providing more childcare services would be a better approach.

Another lesson from France, this time even more literal: the train.

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France is quite famous for having high-quality modern high-speed railways although the country’s geography (very centered on Paris, with no other big cities) is not ideal. The US does not. But it can, at least in California.

More than a decade ago, France’s state-owned SNCF offered to build California’s proposed high-speed rail line from San Diego to San Francisco at a bargain price. The situation is that it was done the way the experienced passenger rail team thought it should be done – by roughly following the route of Interstate 5 in the state’s Central Valley, serving Bakersfield through a peripheral station rather than one in the center of the city. (this is how many French high-speed train stations are used) and serves Fresno with a spur instead of a direct service.

It didn’t serve California politicians’ vision of a project to make everyone happy, so they rejected it. Now, more than a decade later, the country has no high-speed rail service anywhere, even though it has spent so much money and the cost estimates are so high that no one thinks the train will ever be built.

It turns out that working with people who actually know what they are doing has several advantages.

Meanwhile, Amtrak has been given $22 billion courtesy of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last year. What will happen with that? No one knows. A March report from Amtrak’s inspector general warned that “the sheer size of IIJA’s funding and requirements presents a potential strain on the company’s ability to manage current operations while simultaneously planning and managing a long-term multibillion-dollar infrastructure portfolio.” Maybe they can call some French guys and ask for advice? And maybe Joe Biden can make sure they listen this time?

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On a per-capita basis, France has about a quarter of America’s CO2 emissions. Some of them are better trains, better mass transit and smaller cars. But the biggest part is France’s relatively low-carbon electricity production, which comes from one of the world’s largest nuclear sectors.

The European Union, stupidly, fined France for being the only European Union country to miss the European clean energy mandate even though France has lower emissions than Germany – because, according to the EU, nuclear power does not count as clean. The US is wiser than that, and the Inflation Reduction Act makes it money for zero-carbon electricity regardless of its source. And Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has consistently championed innovative new reactor designs aimed at addressing the sector’s cost concerns.

The idea, in a nutshell, is to make a smaller reactor that can have a simpler emergency shut-down system and can be built in a factory in a standard way rather than custom-built on site. As with anything speculative, it may not work. But the basic science is compelling enough that some companies working on small reactor designs have secured significant early-stage investment.

The problem is that no one has told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that promoting small modular reactors is part of America’s national energy strategy. Or, rather, Congress told the commission in 2019, directing it to develop a regulatory pathway for smaller, mass-produced reactors. But it’s not really done. And in practice, laws that direct agencies to do this or that are not self-enforcing. That happens if the president’s appointees and congressional overseers want to make it happen, which so far they haven’t.

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The result is that while the US is really willing to go nuclear for decarbonization money, it’s not willing to do what France has done and actually build reactors.

Better child care, high-speed trains built by people who know what they’re doing, and the full embrace of nuclear power: This is not the comprehensive agenda that Biden and many Democrats (or Republicans) want. But it’s a start – and on all these issues, the US has a fair amount to learn from France.

And the baguettes, of course, are great too.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• After Scholz in China, Look out for Macron in America: Lionel Laurent

• Nuclear Power Has One Last Chance in the US: Liam Denning

• Paris Facing a season even darker than Berlin: Javier Blas

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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