President Trump was so impressed by the military parade he saw in Paris on Bastille Day last July that he ordered the Pentagon to plan a bigger one for Washington, D.C.
“It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” Trump told reporters when he met with French President Emmanuel Macron in New York in September for the opening of the UN General Assembly. “It was two hours on the button, and it was military might, and I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France. We’re going to have to try to top it.”
Of course Trump wants to top it. All things Trump are always “huge,” from his inauguration day crowd to his nuclear button to his tax cut. But if the president really wants to outdo France, below are some tremendous French things that the United States would do well to emulate.
The French are safer
After the mass shooting last week at a Florida high school, Trump tweeted his “prayers and condolences” to the victims’ families. His initial comments also focused on mental health, not guns, despite the fact that early last year he signed a bill revoking an Obama-era rule that made it harder for mentally ill people to buy firearms.
The French, by contrast, do a lot more than offer empty platitudes: They have stringent gun laws. French citizens who want to buy a gun have to apply for a hunting or sporting license, which requires a psychological evaluation and, if acquired, must be renewed every five years. Gun sales, meanwhile, are tightly regulated and require official background checks.
Stricter controls definitely make a difference: France has significantly fewer guns in civilian hands and fewer gun-related deaths per capita than the United States.
In 2013, for example, there were an estimated 10 million guns, both legal and illegal, in France, which at the time had a population of 66 million. That year, 1,750 people were killed by firearms, amounting to 2.65 deaths per 100,000 people.
By contrast, the United States, with a population of 316.2 million in 2013, had an estimated 357 million guns in circulation—more than one gun per person. That year, there were 33,636 US gun deaths, or 10.64 deaths per 100,000—four times the rate in France.
They’re healthier, too
White House doctor Ronny Jackson assured Americans in January that President Trump is in “excellent health.” Given the results of Trump’s physical exam, that’s debatable, but the health of the US health care system is not. It’s in bad shape, especially when compared with France’s.
France’s public-private hybrid health care system is consistently rated among the best in the world. Last year, for example, France placed 18th in the health category in the Legatum Institute’s annual Prosperity Index, which ranks 149 countries on health outcomes, economic performance, education quality, and six other categories. The United States health care system, meanwhile, came in 30th.
Like every other industrialized nation besides the United States, France has universal health coverage. All French citizens are covered by the government’s Assurance Maladie, and most also have private insurance through their job or the private market. The government sets prices for appointments and procedures and reimburses them at 70 percent. It’s similar to Medicare and Medicaid, but because the system covers the entire population, the French government has more leverage to keep prices low.
The United States spends more than twice per capita on health care than France, but French babies have a better chance of staying alive and living longer than American newborns. France’s infant mortality rate, according to 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) data, is 3.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. At 5.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, US infant mortality is higher than in any comparable industrialized democracy. And at the end of life, France boasted a combined male and female life expectancy of 82.4 years, putting it in 9th place in a 2015 WHO survey. The United States, by contrast, ranked 31st, with a combined life expectancy of 79.3 years.
They eat better
France’s obesity rate is 15.3 percent, slightly better than the 15.9 percent for the entire European Union. By contrast, nearly 38 percent of American adults are obese, including President Trump, who apparently fudged his height to avoid being classified that way.
French and US stats on food and farming tell a similar disparate story. In 2017, France ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row in the Food Sustainability Index, which grades 34 countries worldwide in three categories: food loss and waste, nutrition policies, and sustainable agriculture. It bested every other country in reducing food waste and came in fourth in nutrition on the strength of its programs that promote healthy diets. In the sustainable agriculture category, it placed third, largely due to a national agro-ecology program that, among other things, is encouraging farmers to cut their pesticide use in half by 2025 and rotate their crops to increase soil fertility.
The United States, conversely, ranked 21st overall, mainly because of policies that cultivate bad eating habits and destructive industrial farming practices. The fact that Americans consume high levels of meat, saturated fat and sugar placed the United States 24th in the nutrition category. Only Australians eat more meat than Americans, but not by much, and US sugar consumption is the highest among all of countries in the study. The result? More than 40 percent of American children are overweight, the most in any of the countries surveyed.
At 31st out of 34, the US ranking for sustainable agriculture is even more worrisome. Only India, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates ranked lower. The low US score is attributable to a number of factors, including livestock production, which strains water resources and emits methane, and the fact that a tiny fraction of agricultural land is devoted to organic farming while nearly a quarter is used for biofuel production and animal feed.
They make education more affordable
France starts children off with free, universal preschool at écoles maternelles. With 100 percent preschool enrollment for 3- to 5-year-olds, the country ranked first among developed countries in 2014, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international association.
The United States, where some states offer preschool programs from age 4 but most offer nothing at all, ranked 36th out of the 40 nations OECD surveyed. In 2015, only about a third of American 3-year-olds and 60 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Most schools of higher education in France, meanwhile, are state-subsidized, which keeps tuition relatively low, even by European standards.
In 2007, the average public university in France charged $234 per year (189 euros) for a bachelor’s degree, $321 for a master’s degree, $487 for a doctorate, and $757 for an engineering degree. The average bachelor’s degree takes three to four years, so students spend $702 to $936 for their entire undergraduate education. There are pricier options, but compared to the cost of higher education in the United States, they are still a bargain.
The United States is home to the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world, but they are also among the most expensive. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board.
The high cost of a college diploma saddles American grads with debt that can dog them for much of their adult life. Currently there are more than 44 million borrowers with more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, which after home mortgages is the highest consumer debt category in the United States. For the class of 2016, the average student loan debt was $37,172.
They treat workers better
The national minimum wage in France is 9.88 euros an hour, the equivalent of $12.25 an hour in the United States. The US national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, although some states and municipalities now require as much as $15.
The official work week in France is 35 hours, so a French employee making minimum wage would gross the equivalent of $22,297 a year and is entitled to health care coverage, a minimum of five weeks paid vacation and 11 national holidays, as many as 90 days paid time off, and a maximum of three years of medical leave pay, which is covered by the state social security system. Maternity leave, which is at least six weeks before childbirth and 10 weeks afterward, is paid.
Most minimum wage employees in the United States working 40 hours a week gross $15,080 a year. Employers with more than 50 employees are required to offer health care benefits or pay a penalty, and most provide only two weeks paid vacation along with 10 federal holidays. Employers with 50 or more employees also are required to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity (or adoption) leave or family sick leave.
At the other end of the pay scale, US CEOs make considerably more than their counterparts in other industrialized countries when compared to what average workers earn. In 2014, the ratio between CEO and average worker pay in the United States was 354 to 1, meaning that for every dollar an employee got paid, the head of the company made $354, far outpacing the 148 to 1 ratio in Switzerland, the country with the second highest pay gap. In France, the ratio was 104 to 1.
They’re downplaying the role of nuclear weapons
France, which has always maintained a much smaller nuclear force than the United States, currently has a total of 300 warheads deployed on submarines and bombers. In the 1990s, it eliminated its land-based missiles and signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The United States, conversely, has some 1,590 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on submarines, bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as well as 2,390 redeployable warheads currently stored in a “hedge” stockpile, some 500 smaller deployed and stockpiled tactical (battlefield) warheads, and an estimated 2,300 retired warheads slated for dismantlement. The United States signed the CTBT the same time France did, but 22 years later, the US Senate has still not ratified it.
ICBMs pose a big problem. The United States keeps them on hair-trigger alert, which dramatically increases the chance of an accidental, erroneous or unauthorized launch in response to a false alarm, a much more likely scenario than an actual attack. A number of retired generals and former high-level government officials have called for taking ICBMs off high-alert status, while others have called for scrapping them altogether. Under the Trump administration, taking ICBMs off hair-trigger alert or retiring them are highly unlikely possibilities, and the Pentagon’s recently released Nuclear Posture Review lowers the threshold for nuclear use.
They do a better job protecting the environment
Two recent studies ranked France way ahead of the United States when it comes to environmental protection. In the aforementioned Legatum Prosperity Index, France placed 4th out of the 149 nations surveyed. The United States was 34th. The second study, published annually by the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators program, rated US environmental policies 39th out of 41 countries, mainly because of the US government’s inability to seriously address climate change. France, on the other hand, ranked 12th, largely because of its leadership in international climate diplomacy.
France’s climate leadership is evidenced by its binding commitment as a signatory to the Paris climate agreement to reduce its domestic emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. By contrast, the Trump administration announced it was pulling out of the accord (which it cannot officially do until November 5, 2020—the day after the next presidential election) and made it clear it has no intention of honoring the US national pledge.
As part of its plan to meet its Paris accord targets, the French government announced last July that it will ban the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, and French automakers are already doing their part. Peugeot, Citroën and Renault ranked first, second and fourth on a 2017 list of large car manufacturers with the lowest carbon emissions, and Renault started selling battery-powered cars in 2011.
The Trump administration, conversely, wants to weaken fuel economy standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission is now considering permitting an average fleetwide standard of 36.7 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2026, considerably less than the 46.6 mpg requirement imposed by the Obama administration with the auto industry’s consent. According to an Environmental Protection Agency analysis, such a rollback would mean cars and light trucks would emit at least a half a billion more tons of carbon pollution and consume an extra 50 billion gallons of fuel over their lifetimes.
They hold cleaner elections
Unlike the US system of legalized bribery, French campaign finance laws keep special interest money out of politics. French citizens can contribute as much as $5,750 (4,600 euros) to one or more candidates for a specific election, but corporations, unions and advocacy groups are not allowed to donate to political campaigns or parties. In addition, the government has placed limits on campaign expenditures pegged to the office level. Electoral campaigns are relatively brief, and national television and radio stations air political ads free of charge for all candidates during the three months preceding an election. All paid political ads during that time are prohibited. Citizens are automatically registered to vote when they reach the age of 18, and elections are held on a Sunday to make it easier for people to vote.
Restraining corporate influence in elections is one of the key reasons France outpaces the United States in many of the categories cited above. While special interests—from the gun lobby to industrial polluters to Wall Street—keep US politicians on a tight leash, French elected officials are freer to represent the interests of their constituents, not the narrow interests of deep-pocketed campaign contributors and unregulated super PACs.
So, Mr. President, instead of spending as much as $50 million on parade displaying overpriced military hardware, how about trying to top some of these much more significant French accomplishments? America has proven time and time again that it can outperform the rest of the world, but history has also shown that it takes leadership to do it.
Dave Cooke, Marcia DeLonge, Joshua Goldman, Chanelle Kacy-Dunlap, Rachel Licker and David Wright provided research assistance for this essay.
Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.