Notes on an article titled Riots in Paris: The police underestimated the madness of the crowd: an account of how the police lost control of the Arc de Triomphe--and further reflections on the Revolution in France.
Strikes and public demonstrations have crippled government after government’s efforts to introduce market reforms and reduce the size France’s public sector. In late 2017, facing protests against planned reforms to the labor code and pensions systems, Macron’s government asked the police to explore new ways to crack down on what the French call casseurs—fringe groups from the far-right and the far-left who show up at demonstrations determined to wreak havoc and fight the police. The police studied techniques for breaking up crowds, tagging casseurs with paintball guns to identify them, and dispersing them with sound cannons and stroboscopes. The casseurs, the police noted then, had become growingly adept at networking on social media; they proposed to ramp up their own social media strategy in response.
Macron succeeded in pushing through his reforms without provoking the street so much that they shut down normal life. Perhaps it was because of these police measures, or the French were, at first, willing to give his reforms a chance: They had elected him, after all, and he did explicitly campaign on this platform. By defeating the unions that had mobilized to fight his reforms, Macron was seen to have scored a victory. What he didn’t expect was a spontaneous and leaderless movement of people who reject both the government and the unions. So now he's left with an even less accommodating negotiating partner: The unions, at least, had spokesmen and leaders with whom one could reach a settlement; the unions could convince their more radical members to stand down. Macron has tried to cave in to the Yellow Jackets, but he can’t: There’s no one with whom he can negotiate the terms of surrender.
2) The desecration. On Saturday, December 1, the cops lost control of Charles de Gaulle Étoile. There is no place in France more solemn, meaningful, and symbolic of France. At the base of the Arc de Triomphe lies a torch. Since Armistice Day, in 1923, it has been rekindled every evening, at 6:30 P.M., and veterans lay wreaths decorated with the French tricolor by the flame. It lights the tomb of the unknown French soldier who gave his life for France in the First World War. The casseurs desecrated everything. They covered the Arc in graffiti: “The Yellow Jackets will Triumph,” “Long live vandalism!” “Get lost Macron!” They hacked apart the statue of the Marianne, the symbol of the French republic, and used hammers to smash the display cases, the artifacts, and the sculptures, including a marble bust of Napoleon. They looted the commemorative medals. They snuffed out the eternal flame—and so completely had the state lost control that it could not be lit again that day—for the first time since 1923. The Yellow Jackets filmed themselves. They were proud. This kind of violence, nihilism, and hatred of civilization calls to mind ISIS, but they were not ISIS: They were middle-aged rural French men.
On Friday, the Interior Minister predicted that two hundred black-block protesters, and a hundred violent members of the far-right, would join the protests. “Vandalism and violence are unfortunately predictable,” said Denis Jacob, the secretary-general of one of France’s police unions, observing that this kind of violence usually occurs at the tail end of the rally. The police were under firm orders to prevent any destruction or vandalism, and equally firm orders to ensure unimpeded and peaceful pedestrian access to the Champs-Elysées, the city’s biggest shopping arterial. The French economy simply couldn’t afford to lose another Saturday of pre-Christmas shopping revenues. After giving these orders—which were later shown to be incompatible—Macron departed for Argentina. As well he should have: That’s his job. Nonetheless, the country felt his absence. The emergency demanded an executive on the ground and making rapid, consequential decisions. To judge from the chaos as the kinds of mistakes that were made, it seems likely that no one was willing to take responsibility for changing the orders.
Social media groups had converged upon a plan to demonstrate on the Place de la Concorde, around the Eiffel Tower. A number had requested official permission to rally there.
“The right to protest is a fundamental one,” the Interior Ministry responded in a communiqué, “and it is out of the question to ban the rally. However, it cannot take place on the Place de la Concorde, for obvious reasons of security.” During the French Revolution, the revolutionary government erected a guillotine there, which they used to execute King Louis XVI in front of cheering crowds. Later, when the revolution ate its own, it was used to execute the revolutionaries. But that wasn’t the “obvious reason of security” to which he was referring. The obvious reason was its proximity to significant government buildings, including the National Assembly and the American Embassy.
It was politically out of the question to ban the demonstrations outright. The right to assemble is as fundamental to France’s conception of itself as a free country as it is to the United States. What’s more, the opposition far-left and far-right parties, led by the wildly irresponsible Jean-Luc Mélanchon and Marine Le Pen, have been egging the protesters on, hoping to transform a spontaneous and leaderless movement into one organized and led by them, respectively. Both have offered grotesque incitement to the movement. Naturally, Russian propaganda organs have seized upon its social media signals and amplified them. All are prepared to pounce immediately upon any restriction of the protests—or any violent reaction to them—as a sign of the government’s fear of the people.
3. A perfectly reasonable plan. So the interior ministry confined itself to barring the protests only from areas such that a suicide bomber, taking advantage of the mêlée, could insert himself and instantly take out half the government. Police chief Michel Delpuech announced the establishment of a security perimeter around the Elysée Palace, Concorde, the National Assembly, the Senate, and the Hôtel de Ville. No protest was to take place within that zone. But “elsewhere in the capital, the freedom to protest can be exercised.” The enclosed area, whose perimeter was guarded by 5,000 police officers, made up much of the area depicted on this map, south of the Seine:
To put that in proportion, here's a larger map:
Traffic would obviously be terrible, particularly because another protest—against “sexist and sexual violence”—was scheduled that morning between the Opéra and the Place de la République, in the northeastern quadrant of the map above. Keenly aware that blocking off so many roads would cause serious disruption and inconvenience on a critical pre-Christmas shopping day, the police chief promised that normal traffic would be permitted after 1:00 pm, or “as soon as circumstances allowed.”
The plan sounded reasonable. The numbers of protesters had been declining since the first “National Day of Action,” on November 17. The first protest had drawn 282,000 yellow jackets to the streets, according to the Interior Ministry. On the following Saturday, less than half—106,000—had taken to the streets. Of these, only 8,000 had come to Paris. The weather on December 1 was as gloomy and dark as the police could have hoped. Nothing about the day was riotous. Even if the crowds had been as large as they had been the week before, it seemed reasonable to imagine that 8,000 cops with tear gas, water cannon, and a complement of non-lethal and lethal weapons could handle 8,000 protesters.
4. The fan zone. The police opted for a “ fan-zone” strategy, which worked successfully during the World Cup. This strategy for controlling football hooliganism works by encouraging potential miscreants to concentrate in a central area. Those who don’t have tickets to enter the stadium are lured into appealing “fan zones” in the heart of the city to watch the game on mega-screen televisions. The perimeter of this zone is strictly controlled.
Usually, as soon as there’s a large police mobilization in Paris, the black blocks show up to prove that the state can’t control them. They generally enter east of the city near Bastille or République. That’s why the Interior Minister declared the fan zone would be in the purple area above, in the center of the city.
And in fact, the plan worked: There was no terrorism. Both the fan zone and the government buildings were protected from rioters. But the plan wasn’t sufficient because these demonstrators were nothing like football hooligans. They had come with the specific intention of committing systematic violence. They hadn’t come to have a few drinks and burn off some frustration. They couldn’t be distracted by the prospect of having a jolly and safe day out, and they didn’t give a damn about the traditions and rules of street protests.
5. What I saw. I was with peaceful Gilet Jaunes near the Bastille and had no idea of the violence up by the Étoile. I did sense something had gone wrong when we reached the Hôtel de Ville. There, the cops freaked out, as if they’d been jolted with an electric current. A helicopter was buzzing overhead. About 25 police vans came down the street in a caravan, headed toward the Champs Elysée. Some fifty-odd cops had maneuvered themselves into an undisciplined phalanx in front of City Hall, facing rue de Rivoli. They began lobbing tear gas in the general direction of the Arc de Triomphe. Clearly the cops were suddenly terrified, but it wasn’t at all clear why. I’d been deep in conversation with the nice Gilets Jaunes—we were talking about our favorite books, and I was teaching them Sammy Hagar lyrics—so I had no idea the protesters had gone berserk and the cops had lost control. We were all baffled. Why would they fire tear gas at a bunch of grey-haired pensioners? “They’re frightened,” said one of my Gilet Jaunes. “They’re from all around the country. They’re not used to Paris. Maybe they’ve never been here before.” He was correct to note the police are part of a national, not a municipal force, and they did look young and green by comparison with the elderly Gilet Jaunes.
The protest was authorized. The protesters were doing nothing illegal or threatening. “Why are they so hopped-up?” I asked. They didn’t know, although one of them had the right intuition. “It’s City Hall,” he said. “They’re protecting the politicians.” He shrugged as if to say, “Protecting them from us. You can see how ridiculous that is.” I agreed. Only later, when I checked the news, did I understand the cops weren’t terrified of the protesters, but of their boss, who was obviously going to return from Argentina and hand them their balls in a sling.
The scene was curiously inverted. The cops are a young and racially diverse lot drawn from the urban working class. Many are obviously of Maghrebi or African origin. The Gilets Jaunes to whom I was speaking were white, in late middle age, and baffled by the cops’ antagonism: they thought the cops were on their side. Neither side was native to Paris. The older white guys, wearing yellow vests that looked like official uniforms, were staring in puzzlement at these young, agitated, dark-skinned forces of order. There was no racial animosity that I could discern. Just perplexity.
6. What happened at the Étoile. I’ve pieced this together by matching many reports from reliable people and newspapers. There, the police where physically overwhelmed by about 5,000 Gilet Jaunes who had come explicitly prepared to do violence. According to the Ministry of the Interior, 10,000 demonstrated in Paris. But half of them came to fight.
About 5,000 protesters were at the Étoile at any one time, Lichfield says, “though difficult to be sure. Of these most were involved in the violence. Don't care what videos ‘show,’ I saw with my own eyes.” It was the Gilet Jaunes themselves, not radical far-left and right-wing groupuscules, who were burning cars, although attacks on buildings, he said, were more often committed by the far-right or anarchists.
They were pushed back on to the Charles de Gaulle Étoile by riot police. There were running battles all morning long on the Avenues around the Étoile. The rioters threw stones and other projectiles at the police. Lichfield estimated that 70 percent of the casseurs were radicalized Gilet Jaunes, not urban guerillas.
The police couldn’t redeploy to the Arc de Triomphe, where they were needed, because they were stuck guarding the National Assembly, the Senate, City Hall, and other places where politicians assemble. I assume they calculated that property could be replaced, but if someone killed a Senator, they would really be in trouble. The police are furious that they were not allowed to redeploy to protect the eternal flame because it would have left the government unprotected.
Despite having no backup, the police recaptured the Étoile, but they began to flag: They were undermanned, and the Étoile, with twelve avenues radiating from the center, proved impossible to control. They succeeded only in pushing the worst of the rioters down the avenues, where they went wild burning cars and breaking windows.
By midday, the police appeared to have things under control: They had pushed the rioters off the Étoile, along with many demonstrators who had wanted to reach the street peacefully. Lichfield likened what happened next to the Battle of Waterloo: Another army of Gilet Jaunes, he said, turned up in the afternoon, overwhelming the exhausted cops. This must have been when the police began seriously fearing the rioters would breach the security perimeter around the government buildings, accounting for the sudden panic I saw.
The Paris prosecutor, Remy Heitz, later explained that two waves had assaulted the area around the Arc de Triumph. The first comprised radicalized Yellow Vests from the countryside, armed with makeshift weapons: crowbars, hammers, axes. They came with gas masks and helmets. The second wave, he said, in the afternoon, saw the arrival of younger rioters “from the Paris region,” motivated by “delinquency, opportunity, and the chance to loot." The police, remember, had assumed that by this time it would all be over: They didn’t see the first wave coming, so of course they didn’t anticipate that the news of the first wave would spread on social media and attract all the JDs in from the banlieue.
Michel Delpuech, the chief of police in Paris, admitted they were caught unprepared. In a press conference at the end of the day on Sunday, he said that law enforcement had never before seen anything like it. “The testimonies of law enforcement offices all say that never these officials had never before seen such violent events,” he said. (Note this: It’s important. The police were inexperienced in riot control.) The violence was clearly planned: Protesters attacked the police with slingshots, using steel balls as projectiles; they used hammers and firecracker. “This was no spontaneous riot,” he stressed, “but a planned attack” on law enforcement
Among the rioters, he said, were members of far-right and far-left groupuscules. But a large number of protesters, to the police’s surprise, fell in neither camp. They were, he said, willing to “engage in unjustifiable violence” for reasons yet unclear: “Disinhibition, training—what do I know?” Everyone in Paris shared his expression of frank bewilderment. We were all stupefied by what had happened.
7. Plans for more. Immediately, more demonstrations started organizing on social media, mostly on Facebook, with thousands announcing they were ready for more. One Facebook event was called, “Acte IV: Aux Armes Citoyens.” One commenter plans “to bring Molotov cocktails to force the barricades!”
8. The Police Want a State of Emergency.
The police want Macron to call in the army—and they’re saying so in hysterical tones. The Secretary of the National Police Alliance, Stanislas Gaudon, said, “We have to help our forces to do their job, without getting smacked in the face for ten hours straight.” A state of emergency, he says, is necessary because it can be imposed quickly, by the council of ministers: There is no time for recruiting and training new police forces. It would give police authority to search protesters’ homes, which the law does not permit save as a counter-terror measure. (The protests are not considered, legally, to be terrorism, but as “public disorder.”) It would allow them to establish control over “security perimeters,” to requisition administrative resources. The police doesn’t want the army to do counter-riot work, he stressed: They want the army to assume responsibility for “static guarding” to allow the entire police force to be deployed as mobile units, “which is the heart of our profession, the classic maintenance of order."
The police are exhausted, he says, and while they will “always defend the Republic,” they’ve been taking beatings from the protesters, since 2015, they’ve been overworked, being hit by projectiles. They’re “waiting to hear the response from Justice.” They are sick of arresting the same people, watching them be released, and confronting them again—"people who wouldn’t hesitate to kill a cop."
The Union of National Police Commissioners agrees. “In the face of insurrectionary movements, to protect citizens and to ensure public order, there are some exceptional measures to consider. The state of emergency is one of them,” the union's Twitter account said.
Interior Christophe Castaner allows that the executive “badly handled a number of sequences of communication and training.” On Sunday, he said the government couldn’t rule out any measure, including the restoration of the state of emergency.
But last week his Secretary of State Laurent Nuñez told the press it was “not on the agenda.” They instead redeployed thousands of gendarmes--and they knew what to expect this time, which helped--but it still wasn't enough.
9. A Cop’s View. This blog post, from “Stéphane” who says he’s a national police officer, is worth reading in full. I’ve translated it loosely and I haven't confirmed the identity of the author, so caveat lector. But I see no reason, on the face of it, to think it a fake.
There are days when you know you’re going to throw up in disgust, pick yourself up, and get yourself some squash as they say. [A play on words in French: “recevoir le courage,” to take courage, sounds like “recevoir le courge,” to receive a zucchini.”] That’s where we were at 8:45 am for this new day of war. And war’s just what it was. Apart for some of the guys who’ve worked in Corsica or the worst neighborhoods of Paris, Saturday was the worst day we’ve ever seen. A wave of violence that didn’t stop—against us, our stuff. The idea? Break the cop, simply. No matter what means they used, they only had that in mind. Paving stones, smoke, barricades, slingshots, paint with glycerol and acid—they used them all as weapons to hurt us, harm us, kill us. As they say, “a good cop is a dead cop.”…
Breakfast at 4:am, a sandwich at 5:pm and a hot meal at 10:pm, went to bed at 1am. In total, my company had 15 wounded, including one very seriously, and many bruised, all sprinkled with detonations and tear-gas nonstop. Nice recipe, isn’t it?
At 8:45 a.m., I was stationed with my company on one of the large avenues in the 8th. They were already screaming with anger everywhere, singing, blowing stuff up, breaking furniture. They were chanting “CRS are with us,” [the cops are on our side] even though they were hateful toward the police. Is the point of all this to make the President “fall?” Not so easy. We can’t put down our arms; we’re the last bulwark protecting the institutions. [But police are] the eternal wicked of society. The radical fringes of the yellow jackets reproach us, like many other people do. How are we supposed to respond to people’s anger about us doing our job, and even more, our duty? Why all this violence? Why so much hate towards us? I was thinking, would I end this day alive, hurt, just bruised? Will I watch my colleagues get hit? And my family, my wife, my children, my parents ... how do I reassure them? Watching us live on TV in the middle of a civil war must be horrible to for the people who love us. All of this is going through my head.
But I have to focus on the mission; that’s the most important thing, especially because 500 casseurs were coming up on our backs. We only barely had time to retreat—and it’s a wild gang of masked ‘yellow jackets’ but they’re hooded, scarves around their faces, and dressed in black, wearing hoodies, are more than determined--- coming our way. No it’s not a nightmare! Our first reaction was to break off quickly in an alley to limit the damage and avoid being caught between the Place de l’Étoile and this horde. We don’t even have time to say “Amen” before a storm of paving stones, scrap metal, paint, glass bottles falls on our company. When we’re ordered to, we respond with tear gas grenades that we throw by hand, sound grenades launched from the ground—so that we don’t harm the people facing us. Then the big tear gas grenades. It doesn’t stop the rain of cobblestones coming and crashing into my colleagues’ legs, knees and hands. Some of us are wounded and they say so, but we hold. At that moment, you just pray that your colleague doesn’t drop his shield, because that would open a breach. I hear screaming in front of me because I didn’t have time to warn my colleague that the paving stone would hit his hand full-force. He’s a tough guy, he holds on. Another on my right screams in pain, a stone got hurled at his knee. Thank God for his leg, later it’s going to get another stone thrown at in the same place. There are days, like that, where you can tell yourself, “You got lucky.”
We breathe gas again, again and again. We cough, spit, sneeze ... it stings, it burns our eyes and we have to use decontaminant to stop the effects of gas. Even if you’re used to it, it’s hard. When I get the orders I try several times to hit [with rubber bullets] the slingshots from which they’re hurling acid, paving stones, paint. They even emptied a fire extinguisher and filled with paint in order to water us. I see my targets running away, holding their hands, arms, and abdomen ….
“The orders are to block the streets ...So we obey.”
“The day’s tally: Damage, theft, looting, fires, wounded, a stolen assault rifle, almost 10,000 teargas grenades used and 492 arrests.”
“To that tally add the city of Paris damaged, the Arc de Triomphe looted and sacked; the memory of our ancestors fouled and scorned by a totally lost society. Law enforcement overrun by rioters, streets without reinforcement further down to prevent them from coming back, contradictory orders, sometimes no effective results: We’re seeing more and more determined casseurs on whom teargas no longer works.
We cops understand the anger of yellow jackets. We’re living in the same mess as the real yellow jackets. For us, too, life is getting harder and harder. When we take our uniform off, we’re men and women. And we don’t understand the attitudes of our politicians, who just seem to keep ignoring the reality of life. These leaders who let the people live, barely survive, leaving them behind in the misery.
To turn a deaf ear, make fun of the people and deny it even as they do it, unfortunately, that’s not the attitude we’re entitled to expect from our political class. Is this the beginning of a revolution? Only time will tell, but one thing’s for sure, a policeman’s not a machine. He’s a man who has a conscience, a family, a life to live like everyone else.
Hand-to-hand combat continued all morning, he says. The fire truck finally arrived to put out the fires, then the bulldozer to pull down the barricades. They launched one tear gas grenade after the other.
He says another three thousand protesters then ran at them from another avenue. No reinforcements arrive. They have no idea what to do. Then another crowd rushes them from another avenue. They use the same tactic, trying to drag them into an alley to cut them off.
By five p.m, they still hadn’t eaten. They’d pushed the thugs back, he writes so he got the signal from his commander to take a break to eat. As he walked away, he saw, “the whole plaza looks like a massive fireworks display. I’ve never seen anything like it.” He called his family to say, “I’m fine,” then rushed back to relieve his comrades so they could eat, too. But by the time he got back, the thugs had returned, and they had to fight them off again. By 8:00 pm, he writes, their morale was fading. It took them until 10 p.m. to push the last of them back with tear gas.
10. It could be much worse. Note: The police didn’t kill anyone. They managed to get through the entire day without using their firearms. Note too: Firearms were not used against them. So people are still obeying some rules—critical rules. No live fire. It seems everything else goes, however lethal its intent or effects. But that is taboo, on both sides, thank God.
The last thing anyone in his right mind would want is for someone to take that next step. But how long can go on before someone does? Think about that stolen assault rifle. Perhaps the person who stole it will look at it and think twice. But these are people who casually defaced the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. Not even the Nazis thought desecrating Paris like that would be a good idea. So really—who knows?
What must he feel waking up to the stories about “police brutality” in the news, to the endless words of praise from the government for law enforcement, but just as the unions say—all words, no back up?
His conclusion is ambiguous: “But after a while, we’ll have to say stop.”
Stop? To whom? With what? What is one to make of that ominous, ambiguous sentence?
11. No one can make sense of this. I don’t know. Neither do the police intelligence services, who are trying to make sense of all of this information in real time. They don’t have to hunt for intelligence sources or infiltrate the Yellow Jackets and meet their leaders in clandestine locations: The Yellow Jackets are, as they profess to be, transparent. Even the Russian propaganda bots—are all out in the open, right there for all to see. But there is so much signal: What part is noise? Which are the key facts—should they count on the weather getting colder and nastier, and public opinion turning against the Yellow Jackets? Should they count on the rioters being too old to hold out, physically, against a younger police cohort?
Unless there’s a secret division that’s not part of the budget, it does not seem to me that Police Intelligence Brigade has enough manpower to sort this out. The police operate in a slow-moving bureaucracy, which like all bureaucracies utterly unable to keep pace with social media. They have get permission for everything they do, then submit reports about it to the Interior Ministry and the military chain of command, or both of them, depending on the day’s political and bureaucratic developments. There’s a sea of online data. It doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s going to happen.
The government isn't doing it, though. Declaring a state of emergency would be a politically disaster--an unparalleled admission of political defeat. So it is not apt to happen unless a lot of people get killed.
But leaving an exhausted and undermanned police forced to deal with this is every bit as risky. The cops haven’t slept in days; they’ve been taking abuse and potshots from the protesters; their colleagues have been injured. Young and inexperienced police officers, especially, if they find themselves cornered without back-up, are apt to make a serious mistake and kill people. The protesters have already figured out that the police are undermanned and the state is vulnerable. This is encouraging them to believe they can overwhelm it. Declaring a State of Emergency would dim that fantasy.
I suspect Macron's calculation is that by capitulating to the protesters demands, as he did, he can separate the mass of unhappy but normal protesters from their anarchic nihilist fringe. He is hoping that only the lunatics come out next Saturday, and trusting the exhausted police and the gendarmerie will be able to outlast them and arrest them all. He is perhaps calculating that if that fails, the public at large will be on his side if he then declares a State of Emergency and brings in the army. These may be a shrewd calculations. But they’re a gamble, and they’re a gamble with human lives. If the police can’t keep this under control, it is very likely more people will die.
He is no doubt thinking the optics of bringing in the military are so bad that he can't afford it, especially with the European Parliament elections coming up. Remember, Macron has a second role: With the US absent, Britain in convulsions, and Russia licking its chops, Macron is the only Western politician left with a military, and the only one who can keep Europe from fracturing.
Nonetheless, if Macron’s government can’t manage to reform this economy and keep the peace in France, there will be no Europe anyway. His coalition may be wiped out in May, but if he stays the course—and if the reforms (or the business cycle) result in a strong economic uptick, and if he gets very lucky, by the time 2022 comes around, this may be forgotten. But only if this doesn’t end in a bloodbath.
Symbolically, the Gilets Jaunes represent “real France.” This isn’t as nuts as it sounds. I’ve spent hours speaking to them. The overwhelming majority are sympathetic, worn-out, middle-class, middle-aged, and hardworking French men and women. They probably represent about 40-50 percent of the French population. Macron can't afford to make of them all the Enemy; he'll provoke something far worse than the situation we’ve got on hand.
Still, without declaring a state of emergency, I don’t see how the violent contingent can be managed. The police, on their own, are demonstrably unable to quell an uprising of that size and scale. There’s no way to exceed the numbers of cops they put on the street. Last weekend was all they had. Macron cannot assume that Act V will be less violent than Acts III and IV.
16. As for the actual problem ... Notably, no one on the Left or the Right has the faintest idea what to do, what to propose, as a serious remedy for the problems the Gilet Jaunes really do have. Le Pen, rubbing her hands, and Mélenchon, grinning like a lunatic, could think only to call for the dissolution of Parliament and new elections. The economist Thomas Piketty was on national television; when he was not babbling incoherently about inherited wealth, he was busy twitching and fussing with his collar. On the other side was someone from the Gilets Jaunes. Wearing a remarkably ill-fitting black wig, he accused everyone who spoke before him, or who was speaking as he was speaking, of blah-blah-blahsm. He had a point.
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