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


French President Emmanuel Macron is in Washington this week to meet his American counterpart, have a state dinner and accept an award on behalf of the 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 of these is the employment rate in France. Among people of prime working age, between 25 and 54, it is consistently higher than in the US. It is different for younger people, largely because of the more generous funding of higher education in France. For older people it is different mainly because of France’s 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 widely held 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 care and childcare benefits, whether they work or not — but they’re still more likely to work.

In these inflationary times, increasing labor force participation seems like a better solution than pursuing Fed-induced cutbacks. And the French lesson seems to be that the US’s zealous focus on labor market flexibility is not yielding the benefits it should. Perhaps providing more babysitting services would be a better approach.

Another lesson from France, this time even more literally: trains.

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France is quite famous for high-quality modern high-speed rail, although the geography of the country (centered on Paris, with no other really big cities) is not ideal. The US does not. But it could, at least in California.

More than a decade ago, French state-owned rail company SNCF offered to build California’s proposed high-speed rail line from San Diego to San Francisco at a relatively low cost. His stipulation was that it be done the way their team of experienced passenger railroaders thought it should be done—roughly following the route of Interstate 5 in the state’s Central Valley, serving Bakersfield through a peripheral station rather than a downtown one of the city (many French high-speed rail stations operate this way) and serving Fresno with spur rather than direct service.

It didn’t fit California politicians’ vision of a project that would make everyone happy, so they scrapped it. Now, more than a decade later, the state has no high-speed rail service anywhere, even though it has spent large sums of money and cost estimates have risen so high that no one thinks the train will ever be built.

It turns out that working with people who really know what they’re doing has some advantages.

Meanwhile, Amtrak received $22 billion thanks to last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. What will happen to him? Nobody seems to know. A March report by Amtrak’s inspector general warned that “the sheer size of IIJA’s funding and requirements poses a potential strain on the company’s ability to manage its current operations while simultaneously planning and managing a multibillion-dollar long-term infrastructure portfolio.” Maybe they could call some French people 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. Part of that is better trains, better mass transit and smaller cars. But the biggest part of it is France’s relatively low-carbon electricity generation, which comes thanks to one of the largest nuclear sectors in the world.

The European Union is stupidly fining France for being the only EU country to miss European clean energy mandates, even though France has much lower emissions than Germany – because according to the EU, nuclear energy is not considered clean. The US is smarter than that, and the Deflation Act provides money for zero-carbon electricity, regardless of the source. And Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has consistently supported innovative designs for new reactors that aim to overcome the sector’s cost problems.

The idea, in short, is to make smaller reactors that can have simpler emergency shutdown systems and can be built in a factory in a standardized way, rather than custom-built on site. Like any speculative thing it may not work out. But the fundamental science is compelling enough that multiple companies working on small reactor projects have secured significant early-stage investments.

The problem is that no one seems to have 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, ordering it to develop a regulatory pathway for smaller, mass-produced reactors. But he didn’t actually do it. And in practice, laws ordering agencies to do this or that do not enforce themselves. That’s if presidential appointees and congressional watchdogs want to do it, which they haven’t so far.

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The result is that while the US is rightly willing to make nuclear power eligible for decarbonisation money, it is unwilling to do what France did and actually build the reactors.

Better childcare, faster trains built by people who know what they’re doing, and a full embrace of nuclear power: This is not the overarching agenda that Biden and many Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) want. But it’s a start – and on all these issues the US has a lot to learn from France.

And the baguettes are of course great too.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

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

• Nuclear power has one last chance in the US: Liam Denning

• Paris faces an even bleaker winter than Berlin: Javier Blas

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

Matthew Iglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. 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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