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

French President Emmanuel Macron is in Washington this week to meet with his US counterpart, have a state dinner and accept an award on behalf of the baguette. But France isn’t 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 France’s employment rate. Among those of prime working age, between 25 and 54, it is consistently higher than that of the US. For younger people it’s different, largely because of France’s more generous higher education funding. For older people, it’s different mostly because of France’s tradition of early retirement.

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

In these inflationary times, raising labor-force participation seems like a better solution than aiming for Fed-induced layoffs. And the French lesson seems to be that the zealous US focus on labor-market flexibility isn’t delivering the benefits it’s supposed to. Perhaps providing more child-care services would be a better approach.

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

France rather famously has high-quality modern high-speed rail even though the geography of the country (highly centered on Paris, without any other really large cities) isn’t ideal. The US does not. But it could have, at least in California.

More than a decade ago, France’s state-owned railroad, SNCF, offered to build California’s proposed high-speed rail line from San Diego to San Francisco at a reasonably low price. Its condition was that it be done the way their team of experienced passenger railroaders thought it should be done — by roughly following the route of Interstate 5 in the state’s Central Valley, serving Bakersfield via a peripheral station rather than one in the center of the city (this is how many French high-speed rail stations work) and serving Fresno with a spur rather than with direct service.

That didn’t serve California politicians’ vision of a project to make everyone happy, so they turned it down. Now, more than a decade later, the state has no high-speed rail service to anywhere, even though it has spent large sums of money and cost estimates have spiraled so high that nobody thinks the train will ever be built.

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

Meanwhile, Amtrak has been bestowed $22 billion courtesy of last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. What’s going to happen with it? Nobody seems to know. A March report from Amtrak’s inspector general warned that “the sheer size of the IIJA’s funding and requirements presents a potential strain on the company’s ability to manage its current operations while concurrently planning and managing a long-term multibillion-dollar infrastructure portfolio.” Maybe they could call some French guys and ask for advice? And maybe Joe Biden can make sure they listen this time?

Last, electricity.

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

The European Union, stupidly, is fining France for being the only EU country to miss European clean-energy mandates despite France having much lower emissions than Germany — because, according to the EU, nuclear power doesn’t count as clean. The US is wiser than that, and the Inflation Reduction Act is makes money available for zero-carbon electricity regardless of the source. And Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has consistently championed innovative new reactor designs that aim to beat the sector’s cost problems.

The idea, in a nutshell, 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 location. Like anything speculative, it might not work out. But the basic science is compelling enough that multiple companies working on small reactor designs have secured significant early-stage investment.

The problem is that nobody seems to have told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that promoting small modular reactors is part of America’s national energy strategy. Or, rather, Congress did tell the commission in 2019, directing it to develop a regulatory pathway for smaller, mass-produced reactors. But it hasn’t actually done it. And in practice, laws directing agencies to do this or that aren’t self-enforcing. It happens if presidential appointees and congressional overseers want to make it happen, which so far they haven’t.

The upshot is that while the US is rightly willing to make nuclear eligible for decarbonization money, it’s not willing to do what France has done and actually build the reactors.

Better child care, faster trains built by people who know what they’re doing, and a full-throated embrace of nuclear power: It’s not quite the comprehensive 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 fair amount to learn from France.

And 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 Faces an Even Darker Winter 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 of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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