Twenty years from now, when future historians look back at the 1980’s, some of them may be tempted to call it the “Decade of the Grand Illusion.” For not since les années folles, as the French still call the giddy 1920’s, has the Western world lived in such a state of deceptive euphoria.

The besetting sin of all democracies, the Achilles Heel of the democratic system, as students of history have known since the age of Ancient Greece, is a chronic reluctance to face facts. This unwillingness is encouraged by the perennial vice that lies at the heart of the democratic system, and for which the ancient Creeks also coined a valuable term: demagogy.

Nothing has contributed more to enhance the Grand Illusion of the 1980’s than the sudden collapse of the Marxist myth and the dramatic disintegration of the Soviet Empire. This astonishing development caused people on both sides of the Atlantic to look back upon the Reagan years as a kind of Golden Age, not unlike the Grand Siècle of Louis XIV. But just as the spendthrift character of Louis XIV’s overly splendid reign was, less than a century later, one of the contributing causes of the collapse of the Ancien Régime and the onset of the French Revolution, so the fanciful illusion that a country can go on living permanently above its means, accumulating enormous budget deficits and astronomic balance-of-trade gaps, has so weakened the public’s perception of what urgently needs to be done if the U.S. economy is to be saved from shipwreck, that it will probably take more than one major shock—like the present Gulf crisis—to awake the American people from a trance that seems to have paralyzed the national will.

Underlying the Grand Illusion of the Reagan years was the simpleminded belief that the United States could go on consuming almost one-fifth of the planet’s petroleum output, could continue manufacturing gas-guzzling cars, and, since gasoline was cheap and would axiomatically remain so, did not need to undertake any serious program of energy conservation. Many persons in Great Britain, Holland, and Norway—the three main beneficiaries of the North Sea “oil, glut” (now already beginning to run dry)—may have succumbed to this heady illusion, but I think it fair to say that few Frenchmen “fell” for this alluring myth. This is not to suggest for one moment that in France the number of demagogues roaming the political landscape is proportionately less great than in the United States. French socialists, led by François Mitterrand, were a hopelessly irresponsible lot during the early 1980’s, and their wild debauch—in nationalizing banks and various industrial sectors—led to three successive devaluations of the franc; but at no time did their ideological aberrations encompass the grotesque belief that cheap gasoline is an inalienable birth-right.

I remember, a year or two ago, reading an article by Charles Krauthammer, in which he pointed out that a one-cent tax on imported petroleum could produce one billion dollars of revenue for the U.S. Treasury, and that a one-dollar tax could bring in 100 million dollars per annum—enough, he claimed, to wipe out the federal government’s annual deficit in three or four years. To the average Frenchman, who now has to pay close to six francs (roughly $1.20) for one liter of high-octane gasoline, this sounds like straightforward common sense; translated into gallons this amounts to a price of $4.80 at the pump.

What to an American might seem an intolerable hardship has, for the French, been a blessing in disguise. Thirteen percent of the French budget is financed by the tax on gasoline, and this is one of the reasons why in recent years the French government’s annual deficits have been relatively small. But the long-term benefits have been even greater, for the high cost of imported fuel has prompted successive French governments to invest heavily in other forms of energy and to develop ultramodern means of mass transportation that, in these fields, have put France not just years but decades ahead of a negligent United States.

The shock produced by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait last August was not for the French the first experience of this kind. In 1956, when Nasser nationalized the British-and- French-run Sue/’Canal Company, the French were suddenly faced with a crippling shortage of fuel, simply because their traditional suppliers—Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—could no longer ship petroleum through the Suez Canal. The pipelines that now cross Turkey and Syria did not yet exist, any more than did supertankers capable of economically transporting petroleum over the far longer route around the Cape of Good Hope.

Even though the French had by that time begun to tap the oil resources of the Sahara, the dangerous shortage of fuel during the Suez crisis had a traumatic effect on the nation and its political leaders. The first visible consequences began to appear in 1958, when General de Gaulle, partly for military reasons, decided to step up research in the field of nuclear energy. He may not already have realized that one day he would have to say good-bye to a French Algeria and a French Sahara, but he was too hypersensitive about his country’s “independence” to be willing to allow France to go on being almost totally dependent for its energy needs on oil imported from North Africa, the Middle Fast, or—supreme humiliation!—the United States.

Thus was born a state-subsidized company called Framatome, which has since grown into the world’s largest designer and producer of nuclear power plants. In 1974, when Europe was hit by another “petroleum shock” (caused this time by the creation of OPEC), France, with only one nuclear reactor in full-time operation (but with six others nearing completion), still had to rely on petroleum for 80 percent of its energy needs. Today, with 53 reactors in operation, France’s dependence on petroleum has dropped to around 35 percent—a ratio no other industrialized country comes close to matching.

Although a nuclear power plant costs almost twice as much to build as a power plant based on natural gas, and three times as much as a turbine plant using fuel oil, a nuclear plant generally has a longer life expectancy, ranging from five to fifteen years. But its main advantage, as Jean-Claude Leny, the present head of Framatome, explained last November to Le Figaro, resides in the fact that when the international price of petroleum reaches 30 dollars a barrel, it costs 50 centimes (roughly 10 cents) to produce one kilowatt-hour of electricity in a fuel operated power plant and only 20 centimes in a nuclear power plant. Every increase in the international price of petroleum above the 30-dollar level further favors nuclear power. Which is why Leny confidently predicts that “to cover its needs, America will have to build from 100 to 150 nuclear power plants between now and the end of the century.”

This, however, is not the only reason for believing that France today is better prepared than most industrialized countries to cope with the world’s latest “petroleum shock.” The progress France has made in railroad transport, particularly in the field of highspeed trains, has been no less spectacular.

Fifteen or twenty years ago one of America’s first ecologists, Barry Commager, was already pointing out that it requires six times as much energy to transport someone over the same distance in an automobile as in a train. Glib comparisons of this kind can be misleading, for much depends on how many persons there may be in the car, exactly how powerful and fuel-consuming it is, and how well filled in comparison is the passenger train.

Statistical experts employed by the SNCF—the Syndicat National des Chemins de Fer Français, as the state-controlled French railway system is called—are more modest in their claims. They have calculated that the electric energy equivalent of one liter of gasoline can carry a train-borne passenger over a distance of 42 miles, if the train is only 65 percent full. (If the proportion of seat occupancy nears 80 percent, which is now the case of many high-speed French trains, then the distance increases correspondingly.) The same amount of gasoline (roughly one quarter of a gallon) can propel a car transporting 2.5 passengers (a statistical average used so as not to disadvantage the automobile) over a distance of 25 miles, and the same amount of kerosene can carry an airbus passenger almost 12 miles only. Broadly speaking, and allowing for the fact that even in economy-minded France few cars can cover 100 miles on a gallon of fuel, the energy-expenditure ratio makes train travel twice as economical as travel by car and four times as economical as travel by air. And this is without taking into consideration the enormous quantities of fuel wasted every day by traffic congestion on overcrowded highways and the “stacking-up” of airliners around a busy airport.

Today no Frenchman in his right mind would think of flying from Paris to Lyon—a distance of about 260 miles (or slightly more than the 200 miles that separate New York and Washington, D.C.). For, by boarding the high-speed TGV—train à grande vitesse—at a railway station in the eastern part of Paris, he can get off in the very center of Lyon exactly two hours later, without having had to take a bus or a taxi to one of Paris’s two airports, with all the delays involved in checking in, handbag examination, and, for those carrying suitcases, the tiresome wait at the luggage conveyor belt. He can do it, furthermore, in any kind of weather and at roughly half the cost of air travel.

Constructing new railway lines capable of carrying trains traveling up to 185 miles per hour is, of course, an expensive business. (Slightly less than two million dollars per mile was the cost of building the Paris-Lyon line, expressed in 1989 dollar-franc currency values.) But it is less expensive than building superhighways, which eat up twice as much land.

Indeed, the experience of the past ten years has shown how farsighted were the rulers of France when, in the 1970’s, they decided to modernize the French railway system. It used to be axiomatic that railway companies always lose on passenger traffic and only make a profit transporting freight—the classic example in the United States being the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, mainly used for transporting coal northward from the mines of West Virginia. But France’s TGV’s have knocked the props out from under this assumption. By the end of 1984, just three years after the opening of the Paris-Lyon run, the TGV’s were already showing a profit. In nine years—from 1981 to 1989—the number of passengers using this line increased from 12.2 million to 18 million per annum, and the figure keeps rising.

This is merely the beginning of a long-term program that is to extend into the next century and embrace other European countries. But already today any Parisian who wants to can reach Bordeaux (360 miles away) in just under three hours, paying 290 francs (about 60 dollars) for a fare that on a plane would cost 640 francs (close to 130 dollars). And he or she can do so, furthermore, while comfortably seated in a train that does not begin to shake and rattle almost uncontrollably as the speed approaches 80 miles per hour, as happens on the antediluvian Amtrak trains that ply (plow would be an apter word) up and down our Eastern Seabord. Similarly, four or five years hence, it will be possible to reach often fog-bound Strasbourg, on the Rhine, in less than two hours, without fear of being delayed by bad weather.

Last May, during a trial run on the new line between Paris and Tours, a TGV hit a top speed of 321 miles per hour, establishing a new world record, ahead of anything yet attained by the Germans or the Japanese. But the most sensational and telling statistic has come from Brussels, where it has been estimated that road congestion in the twelve member countries of the European Economic Community already costs them 3 percent of their gross international product: no less than 100 billion écus (about 140 billion dollars) every year. (To which might be added another 75 billion écus—roughly 105 billion dollars—for damage caused by traffic accidents.)

If I have run on at length about this problem of fuel conservation, it is not because I have any particular predilection for nuclear power plants, passenger trains, or state-controlled enterprises. But I do earnestly believe that in these two fields we have a great deal to learn from the French.

The current mania for privatization, total privatization and nothing but privatization, is not necessarily an infallible panacea for every economic ill, and may well turn out to be, like so many other economic fads, just one more grand illusion.

If Jack Kennedy had been the truly great, farsighted President so many Americans still fancy him to have been, he would have realized that a national railway board, geared to an ambitious program of modernization, was urgently needed to pull our country’s antiquated railway system from the marshy bog into which it has been allowed to sink. The two necessary conditions for the successful operation of high-speed trains are relatively flat terrain (tunnels cost a lot to build and force engine drivers to slow down) and a high density of population. Both conditions exist along much of the Eastern Seabord of the United States, where the dismal backwardness of commuter train systems—two to three times slower than the French and ten times less punctual—is, in the land of Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt, a national disgrace.