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The Gop's New Love Affair With France

I'll likely write more on France's nuclear industry later, but for now, let me just say that I continue to find it odd that Republicans are so enthralled by this model. During the weekly GOP radio address on Sunday, Lamar Alexander gushed that France has "one of the lowest electric rates in Western Europe and the second lowest carbon emissions in the entire European Union," all thanks to the country's heavy reliance on nuclear power, which supplies about 88 78 percent of the country's electricity (France also exports a bunch to Italy, the Netherlands, Britain, and Germany).

Now that's true, but what Alexander doesn't mention is that government support for the industry has been remarkably heavy-handed over the years. The French state owns about 85 percent of EDF, the utility that operates all the reactors, and about 87 percent of Areva, the main company that makes the reactors and recycles the spent fuel. Both companies, though technically private, have benefitted greatly from state support over the years: During the 1980s, when the nuclear industry was flagging worldwide, the government made a strategic decision to sustain a key Areva factory in Chalon by ordering replacement parts early—the sort of industrial policy free-traders tend to abhor. And, until recently, electricity tariffs were tightly regulated by the French government, which helps explain why rates were so low. (EDF, which had a monopoly on electricity distribution until 1999, had fairly dismal profits as a result.)

That's not to say France's energy policy isn't worth looking at. But it has also involved a lot of, well, socialism. And not fake socialism like when Republicans are whining that Obama's expanding insurance coverage, but the actual government-owning-the-means-of-production variety. It's a peculiar love affair the GOP has struck up, for sure.

--Bradford Plumer