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France For All Or France For the French?

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BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT

The first round of voting in France’s presidential election is over. Like a reality television show, 15 candidates–most of them highly colorful figures–entered the arena. Now, only two of them remain. As I predicted, the final election battle would likely be between center-left candidate, Emmanuel Macron vs. Alternative Right-wing candidate. Marine Le Pen.

Now, Macron and Le Pen prepare to do some serious national campaigning until the second vote takes place on May 7th. Of course, the question that everyone has on their minds is: who will come out on top? For the graybeards who populate America’s foreign policy establishment, the question is (as it erroneously was for Donald Trump): how badly will Marine Le Pen lose?

Don’t listen to these folks.

It’s important to keep in mind that no one knows how the future will shake out. Please be very suspicious of those who claim that they know such things for certain. Indeed, many people make a living in the geopolitical risk field by pretending to know what the future portends. While they can get it right sometimes, as we’ve seen in the last year or so, they can more often get it wrong. And when they do get it wrong, boy do they get it very wrong!

See below for some examples of what I’m talking about:

So, as for the French presidential election, despite the fact that almost all other French presidential candidates from the first round endorsed Macron for president, and despite the fact that almost every major polling agency or commentator continues to predict that Macron has a 26-point favorability going into the second round, we must question these prognostications. You see, these same “wizards” were assuring the public that both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump were an impossibility. The Mainstream Media and their “reliable” analysts likely suffer from projection: they present their personal views and predilections as objective fact. It’s human nature. It’s also part of the problem of living in a post-truth world (thank you, Frankfurt School and the Generation of ’68).

That’s okay, though, since the voters have proven tenacious enough to ignore what many “news” reporters and political hacks have been predicting (read, making assumptions based on partisanship rather than fact). Thus, much of the reportage on these issues is usually useless.

Of course, we could take Ian Bremmer’s apparent line of thought which is to say,

“Any model entirely based on polls fails to appreciate the roller coaster French politics has been taken on over the past year. Just about every scenario which was plausible under the normal rules has been crushed. French voters are in a ‘dégagiste’ mood. No preordained scenario will do.”

I fall much closer to Bremmer’s assessment. However, even he misses the point. Bremmer understandably chocks his assessment up to the “roller coaster” that is French politics. However, there are real trends belying these drastic shifts in Western–specifically European–politics. These trends are more qualitative than they are quantitative as well (which means many mainstream analysts miss the changes because they are not easily computed into their models). These trends resonate with much deeper, though little understood (in terms of their impact on the present day) historical and cultural realities intersecting with the hard numbers of demographic shifts.

But there are also trends running counter to the nationalistic-populist narrative in Europe (notably the automatic assumption that an EU is needed to empower smaller states and to grant greater economic opportunity upon European countries). After all, Geert Wilders, despite having made significant gains in the recent Netherland elections, did not have a clean sweep over his embattled country (as so many analysts assumed that he would). Even though, I must reiterate that Wilders’ party did make significant electoral gains, thereby elevating their status in Dutch politics, moving them from a mere fringe party to a mainstream party (that continues to be on the rise, if trends persist). When it comes to this overall trend of nationalistic-populism, it is not an easily quantifiable shift. And, more importantly, the development of these parties is more of a marathon, not a sprint. Just because Wilders, for instance, did not become Prime Minister of the Netherlands, does not mean that his political clout in the country decreased, or that his party’s power share declined. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The third important point to remember is that it doesn’t matter how many famous people and political leaders have come out in support of Macron. It also is not particularly wise to simply aggregate the percentage of those who voted for candidates other than Marine Le Pen as automatically being a vote for Macron.

As Hugo Drochon wrote in the New Statesman recently,

“Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.”

More importantly, the other major populist in Round One of the French presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Socialist, has not endorsed Macron. Indeed, his supporters being populists are in agreement with many of the supporters of Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party. Disliking the more “mainstream” French candidate, Emmanuel Macron, and feeling disenfranchised yet again by the French political system, these Leftist populists might decide that a vote for Le Pen is still better than either not voting or voting for Macron. After all, if Le Pen shares 80% of your views–particularly on the key issue of EU membership and entitlements–why not support her? These voters will be particularly important for Le Pen, if she is to have a chance of overcoming what many believe are insurmountable obstacles in Round Two.

Following up with that line of thought, Lucy Pasha-Robinson of The Independent said:

“Regional results pointed to political fracturing between the big cities and more rural areas that have historically suffered problems like poverty, unemployment and poor provision of public services.” 

Let’s just look at how the nationalistic-populists in the U.S. fared in 2016. Bernie Sanders, the self-described “Democratic Socialist,” was wildly popular among the Democratic Party’s base, as well as among many younger Americans. Indeed, the cohort of younger voters who were for Sanders was the same cohort that was hugely responsible for Barack Obama’s history-making election in 2008. Still, though, for various political reasons, the DNC leadership coordinated with the Hillary Clinton campaign during the Democratic Primary process to ensure that the far more popular Bernie Sanders was denied the party’s nomination. Unlike 2008, when the contentious Democratic Primary was amicably settled between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the convention, the Democratic Party was unable to heal the rift created between its Socialist-leaning base and the rest of the party. Indeed, going into the 2016 General Election, there can be little doubt that the scandal of how Hillary Clinton gained the DNC presidential nomination in 2016 seriously depressed voter turnout from the Left.

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Courtesy of Bloomberg.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Donald J. Trump, despite having won 62 million votes (from Americans not Russian “hacks”), Trump still lost the popular vote in the U.S. Indeed, he continues to have the lowest approval rating of any modern U.S. President, despite having won the election (and despite having only been in office for a few months). Of course, approval ratings mean nothing. But, the mere fact that Trump lost both the popular vote and has such low approval ratings implies that, despite being a populist, he is not necessarily popular. What’s more, it also proves that one doesn’t necessarily need to be overwhelmingly popular–just enough so a candidate can retain a reliably sizable base of support (which Trump did, of course).

Plus, we mustn’t forget that during the Republican presidential primary in 2016, many of the Republican candidates (including several of the GOP leadership as well as former prominent leaders) joined the #NeverTrump bandwagon…and Trump still crushed his primary opponents (an embarrassing fact, considering how much money “inevitable” candidates, such as Jeb Bush, spent in the primary).

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Also, Brexit, the other big nationalistic-populist uprising, remains wildly unpopular–so much so that it risks separating Scotland from the United Kingdom–despite the fact that it still happened.

So, Marine Le Pen having most of her Round One opponents–of both the Left and the Right–uniting in opposition against her is not that impressive. Though, to be sure, she would lose, if the majority of supporters of all 14 of her Round One opponents came out to vote against her on May 7. However, this seems unlikely. Especially in the wake of the recent terror attack in Paris, the continued economic turmoil ravaging France, and the fact that Marine Le Pen toned down some of her harsher rhetoric (though not on immigration, her leading issue) in the days and weeks leading into the April 23 vote. In other words, her opposition is likely not as galvanized against her as the media proclaims.

Still, her opposition is significant.

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Besides, Macron is the Hillary Clinton of the French elections. He is bland. He comes across as somewhat milquetoast. What’s more, he’s an agent of the status quo. Specifically, he is avowedly pro-European Union…something that does not necessarily win praise in France today. Therefore, it is likely that many of those predisposed to disliking Marine Le Pen will not be galvanized enough to overwhelm her tenacious supporters on the Right in France. Trump won in the U.S. because he got more of his base to turn out than Hillary could. Brexit happened for similar reasons: the “Bremain” crowd, while universally opposed to Brexit, could not generate enough mass at the polls to stop the Brexit vote from happening.

Remember, Macron only got 23.75% of the French vote in Round One (compared to Le Pen’s 21.53%). And, we can never underestimate the importance of the personality and will power of political leaders to radically alter the outcome of elections. Had Trump campaigned as anemically and sporadically as Hillary Clinton did during the General Election, Clinton would have surely bested him. But, Trump was absolutely unforgiving on the campaign trail; a true force of nature (especially compared to Hillary’s sclerotic campaign schedule). Over the next two weeks, the two candidates will scour France, looking for disparate votes that are otherwise holding out (while ginning up their base of supporters). If either one of these candidates happens to break through and resonate with even a modest number of voters in that regard, that candidate will have a decidedly important advantage going in to the actual voting phase.

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Courtesy of The Economist.

What is a fact is that neither French nor Western politics as a whole will ever be the same again. It seems almost trite to say it after everything that’s happened in the last year (although I must say it): the postwar consensus on Democratic Globalism is over. The old paradigm is dead. Talk of Liberal vs. Conservative is terribly antedated; but, so too is talk of Left vs. Right.

That’s no longer the battle.

Interestingly, Trump, Le Pen, the Brexit crowd, Geert Wilders, and all of the other nationalistic-populists share a consensus on the role of the Welfare State; they also believe that strength in foreign policy is a must but, at least in theory, they are opposed to the liberal use of force for such amorphous concepts as “humanitarian interventions.” As well, they generally tend to have a more open mind when it comes to high levels of government spending–so long as it benefits a majority of their fellow citizens (i.e. infrastructure spending). Lastly, the nationalistic-populists want tax reform to spur the economy while at the same time they support protectionist policies and intensive border controls.

Ergo, the real battle today in Western politics is between Democratic-Globalists vs. Nationalistic-Populists. And, the Democratic-Globalists are destined to lose this contest. The reason, as I’ve consistently argued, is because of severe demographic shifts in Western states. In other words, population pushes politics. If one wants to understand the drastic–even radical (though I would use that word judiciously)–political shifts in Western politics, one must understand the significant changes in the demographic makeup of most Western countries (which, also explains why the candidates with the most draconian immigration policies are gaining increasing levels of support).

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To put it simply, the native-born populations of Western states are enduring a Baby Bust” which seems unlikely to abate anytime soon. Commentators such as the brilliant Mark Steyn would argue that it is due to the prevalence of Leftist (read, Globalist) public policies having been in place in these countries for decades (since at least the 1970s). Others, such as Walter Laqueur, would also add that ceaseless immigration flows (particularly in the aftermath of the ongoing wars within the Muslim world) into Europe are compounding these population issues. For, not only are Western countries suffering through a baby rut, but they are also now in danger of being overtaken by immigrant populations.

That, in-and-of-itself is not a problem. But, the aforementioned Leftist/Globalist policies complicate the immigration factor. Think about it: on top of taking in increasing levels of immigrants (from wholly different civilizations from the dominant ones in Western countries), government policies strictly forbid the socio-political integration of these masses into the larger body politic. Also, it is likely that at least some of the immigrants are coming not for work but either to escape wars in their homelands or to acquire money from the government in the form of Welfare payments. An even smaller (though significant) minority of these immigrants may be moving to the West to either a) wage jihad upon Westerners in their own lands (or accrue money from the West to fund jihad elsewhere) or b) may be on the run from autocratic secular governments in the Muslim world because they are, in fact, jihadists.

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One of the Muslim immigrants in France who perpetrated a vicious terror attack in Paris. In this clip, he has sworn fealty to the Islamic State and vowed to kill Jews and Westerners in France.

France has been at the leading edge of these trends. Postwar French politics have been decidedly Leftist, to say the least. They have also, since the reign of Charles de Gaulle, been generally anti-American (while benefiting from American largesse). France, along with Germany, was one of the founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the precursor to the modern European Union. The French wanted the ECSC for economic benefit, of course, but they also wanted to convert the Free Trade union into a political one–with France leading that political union.

In 1992, France was one of the greatest proponents of the Treaty of Maastricht, which birthed the EU as we know it today. While France opposed Communism along with the U.S., the French sought to distance themselves from being what de Gaulle perceived as an American vassal state: forced to rely on the nuclear umbrella afforded to Europe by a somewhat fickle, distant American partner. France was a great nation, after all. It had a global empire in recent times, and routinely competed for global dominance throughout its history. De Gaulle acquired a nuclear bomb and attempted to strategically distance France from the U.S. At the same time, he and his successors, all committed themselves creating an alternate power strut in the West beyond the Anglo-American alliance. Thus, French commitment to the EU was a sine qua non of French politics since the days of the ECSC.

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Charles de Gaulle, a virulent opponent to American hegemony.

As I noted in my previous article that accurately predicted the success of both Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron in Round One of the French presidential election, the French economy has been a consistent letdown. Between Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K., France was never able to achieve the kind of political dominance it sought by supporting the EU, since power in the EU was defined by economic prowess. The Germans consistently won out over everyone in the EU. And, even with the UK gone (once the sixth-largest economy in the world), the French could do little to improve their economic standing in the EU. It just became an even greater German Union.

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All that the Globalist policies of the EU got France was destabilizing levels of immigration, a subordinate economic status to its European partners, and it did little to improve France’s ability to project power. Now, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and in the wake of the series of terror attacks that have been directed against France, large numbers of French voters are necessarily questioning the status quo.

There’s one more thing also: the EU did not create economic prosperity the way that its supporters promised it would. Indeed, the low tariff barriers, open borders, and the shifting away from the industrialized economy to the post-industrial, “Knowledge Economy,” was beneficial to those mostly living in the cosmopolitan centers in France. Meanwhile, scores of people living in the countryside, who did not have access to the benefits of the coastal metropolises, suffered mightily. This did not abate. It continued, intensified, and became virtually hopeless for over 20 years in France.

Or, as Christopher Caldwell said in his recent article on the matter:

“Sixteeen […] urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions […] Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places. But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years—Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers—are now, to use Guilluy’s word, ‘desertified,’ haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.”

This pattern has played out repeatedly throughout the Western world. As Richard Hernandez wrote recently, “The old French middle class had been declared surplus to requirements because the work they used to do is outsourced.” It is these voters who comprise the majority of the support for Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party. Like the Trumpists in America and the Brexit crowd in Great Britain, the old middle class is striking back. Add in the threats of unfettered immigration, national insecurity, and reductions in the efficacy of government entitlement programs and you’ve got quite a mixture for radical political shifts in those countries.

One of the biggest determinants in the nationalistic-populist trend has been in the divergence in level of formal education between those who generally support Democratic Globalists and those who support Nationalistic-Populists. In both cases of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, those possessing higher levels of formal education were more likely to support the Democratic-Globalists compared to those who had less formal education.

In France, a similar trend shook out between those who supported Macron and those who favored Le Pen. As Andre Tartar, Cedric Sam, and Hayley Warren articulate in their brilliant assessment in Bloomberg:

“While higher educational attainment doesn’t categorize all Macron supporters, he did out-perform Le Pen in this regard. He carried all 10 of the departments with highest proportion of advanced degree-holders, and 16 of the top 20. In departments that he won, 26.4 percent of the population had an advanced degree, on average, compared to 21.7 percent for departments won by his rival. Meanwhile, Le Pen fared better in areas with a greater concentration of vocational degrees or of people without a high school degree.”

In 2014, France’s official statistical body, Insee, issued a surprising report claiming that the “French are less well educated than many of their European neighbors.” According to the 2014 study, “72.5% of French adults aged 25-64 have completed high school” (compared to 74.2% for the entire European Union). The number of those who continue on to university is far less (about 50% of those with high school diplomas go to the traditional 3 year university in France, whereas 30% “go elsewhere,” and 20% do not graduate).

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Courtesy of Bloomberg.

It’s important to note in the French system that education is not like here in the U.S. There is a selective winnowing system that begins testing students at the age of 15, while they are in high school. They are forced into a weeklong series of tests whereby they are told where they can go to study. In France, there are the traditional universities (three, instead of four-year universities); then there are a retinue of other tracks, such as the classes préparatoires, Engineering schools, and IUT.

The reason for the selectiveness is twofold: because French schooling is publicly funded, to keep costs down, and to increase the potential for success in the investment, only the best students are allowed to pursue higher degrees. The second factor is due to the fact that France, as a member of the EU, must be highly competitive in the Globalized economy, which favors the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). As a corollary, the dropout rate for French public universities is 50%, since the entire French education system is highly test-oriented…to the point where students simply cannot keep going.

Anyway, the reason that I included these figures in this assessment of the French election is because they plays directly into how the French are likely to vote on May 7th. As we’ve seen in both cases of the Brexit vote as well as the election of Donald Trump, the number of formally educated voters does not outweigh the number of those supporting nationalistic-populist candidates when it comes time to the actual vote (indeed, some of those formally educated voters actually favor the nationalistic-populist candidates, though they are not the norm).

Therefore, an oft-overlooked pattern is the level of formal education. Thus, while 72.5% of French voters obtain a high school level of education, less than 50% likely achieve an education higher than the high school-level.

Meanwhile, there are some who argue that Marine Le Pen will lose because the French people will vote with their pocketbooks. This is not necessarily correct. While I understand the argument that a Marine Le Pen victory in Round Two basically ensures a “Frexit” of the EU, which is a threat to the French voters, I disagree with the conclusion that Le Pen is destined to lose because of this (besides, this is another opinion presented as a fact).

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The argument goes like this: if Frexit were to occur, France’s economic standing would be greatly reduced. France already has severe economic woes. Those furthering this argument believe that the only way to get truly rich in France is through inheritance. Most inheritors prefer to receive their inheritance in the much more valuable Euro than in Francs. If Frexit were to occur, there would be no choice: all French inheritors would have to receive their money in the lower-valued Franc. In fact, the entire French economy would take a major hit, as the only currency available would be the undervalued Franc.

However, I worry that this is a dangerously reductionist argument.

Remember: virtually identical economic arguments were made regarding the supposed improbability of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency.  In both cases, the analysts were mostly wrong. While it is important that analysts not  impute either the American or British political experience onto the French one (I routinely warn of the dangers of mirror-imaging), we cannot solely look at the economics of the situation. Or, rather, we cannot solely look at how the Globalist voters in France view the economic situation in the 2017 presidential election. Analysts must factor in the above-mentioned demographic factors, voting patterns based on education level, the perceived threats to the efficacy of the Welfare State, the increasing terror threat, and the fact that most of the French middle class have become highly skeptical of the European Union, and Globalization writ large.

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Marine Le Pen.

Taking these trends into account, but also factoring in all that is arrayed against Marine Le Pen, I value Marine Le Pen’s chances of victory as 60% (for now). It is a mistake to totally discount her chances purely on the fact that a Le Pen victory would negatively impact the fortunes of the Global elite in France. More importantly, it misses the point of the major changes in Western politics completely. Of course, I could be wrong. Only time will tell.

And, regardless of what happens in Round Two of the French presidential election on May 7th, the demographic realities of the West remain the same. In fact, they are working in the opposite direction of the nationalistic-populists. The wave of anti-globalism and nationalistic-populism washing across the West is the last gasp of those trying to save their countries for the native-born people already there. If Marine Le Pen wins and manages to govern as she envisions, there is a chance for a French political restoration. If not, France will be lost.

However, even if Marine Le Pen loses in France now, the dying off Baby Boomers are driving the politics of the entire West still. They still have some years left to impact politics. In their youths, the Boomers overwhelmingly supported the ill-advised Leftism that is now the dominant political narrative throughout the West. In their old age, many of them are negatively reacting to the fruits of their youthful labor. It’s a play on the old adage that when one is young they tend to be Liberal and, as one ages through life, they tend to become more Conservative.

In essence, the reaction to globalism isn’t going to end in 2017, or with Marine Le Pen in France. To put it bluntly, this visceral reaction to Globalism will only end once the vast majority of Baby Boomers in the West die off. Of course, the Leftist–or, Globalist–pull of French politics has always been strong. Shedding off those impulses may prove difficult. But, if there was one time that the shake up could occur, it would be now.

Think about it: more people are leaving the workforce; there are fewer native-born children; the economy continues to do poorly, even as more and more immigrants inimical to the dominant French culture today pour into the country. Furthermore, the cost of living in France is exceedingly high, meaning that even if all native-born Frenchmen wanted to reproduce children at Societal Replacement Levels, they would be unable to afford those children, without still more onerous taxes being imposed on the wealthy (thereby slowing the anemic French economy even more than it already is).

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Keep in mind, also, that many retiring French are dependent on the Welfare State (and will be even more dependent on them once they leave their jobs). The system cannot work if there are more people pulling money out of the system than there are workers contributing money to it. Without immigration, this is precisely what will happen. However, as France gets more immigrants, the French failure to properly incorporate them into the body politic (because of the multicultural policies of the French government as well as the fact that most Europeans do not want to incorporate the immigrants) will be the undoing of the French (and overall) European political order. What’s more, not all of those immigrants contribute significantly to the Welfare State. Many are low paid and end up taking a great deal of the entitlements, thereby straining the already burdened Welfare State further.

The dominant question in the French election is: will France be “for all” or will it be for the French? I believe that the French want France for themselves and their children. I also believe that Marine Le Pen is running against the conventional political wisdom, meaning that she has powerful interests arrayed against her. Thus, as it was with Donald Trump, her ultimate success may come down to how well she connects with the voters over the next two weeks of campaigning (and if any breaking news events breaks her way in the final moments before votes are cast).

This is why I value her chances of winning at around 60%.

That percentage may go up or down, depending on how the two candidates campaign. It also, unfortunately, depends on how deeply the French Deep State is opposed to her winning. After all, French politics is highly corrupt and most existing French political figures and leading power brokers (as well as many French business endeavors) are rabidly opposed to a Frexit vote. So, barring any funny business from the French Deep State, the contest between Le Pen and Macron will be hard-fought.

Whatever happens, though, France’s prospects are not good: the native-born demographics have been so low for so long that the negative trend is almost irreversible. Even if Le Pen does win, she will need to consistently win enough support from the French legislature to be able to push through her programs. If she cannot push a majority–if not all–of her programs through, French decline will not be arrested. If her programs are only half-successful, French decline will not be arrested. If Macron wins, France will be over. Whatever replaces the France of today will be unlike any France that has ever existed before.

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More importantly, if Macron does win, that does not mean that Marine Le Pen or her National Front Party will simply evaporate. In fact, looking at the numbers from the First Round of the election and comparing it to the 2012 election, you see that the National Front Party’s support has exploded. So, the great fear among many opponents of Le Pen in France is that her support will only increase after 2017, making it even more likely that she would be the next French president in the next election cycle in 2022.

One final interesting question that I find myself pondering about the recent rise of Western nationalistic-populists is whether or not this is actually a Western phenomenon, or whether this is a factor uniquely affecting the Anglo-American communities? After all, the trend has most affected the United Kingdom and the United States. Both Scotland and Ireland have expressed little interest in leaving the EU or changing their Leftist politics. The Netherlands also negated the turn. Austria refused to go nationalistic-populist as well. Also, if events continue going the way that they have thus far in Germany, it is likely that the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) will not make any more electoral gains, meaning that Germany will remain steadfastly committed to the EU and the Democratic-Globalist paradigm. However, Italy did turn on Matteo Renzi and take a sharp turn toward the nationalistic-populist. While I disbelieve that a Frexit would destroy the EU, as so many commentators seem to believe, I do believe that France could be a bellwether regarding whether the nationalistic-populist narrative extends beyond the Anglo-American nations.

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Courtesy of Bloomberg.

So, what do you think? Will France be made for all, or will it be preserved for the French?

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