20/06/2022 thesaker.is  28 min 🇬🇧 #210558

Yellow Vest Win: The end of unions as Western leftism's hereditary kings

by Ramin Mazaheri for the Saker blog

The 51-day general strike of 2019-20 - the longest labor movement in French history - was the best of times and the worst of times, to use a Dickensian reference regarding progressive France.

It was admirable that train workers thought they alone should or could bear the weight of stopping Emmanuel Macron's self-professed neoliberal Revolution - it was pathetic that a general strike didn't appear until December 5, 2019, or 383 days after the Yellow Vests had first revealed the obviously revolutionary sentiment across France.

(This is the sixteenth chapter in a new book, France's Yellow Vests: Western Repression of the West's Best Values.  Please click here for the article which announces this book and explains its goals.)

The vast support for the general strike proves that the situation in France was indeed in a revolutionary situation, as the history of the working class movement proves that a general strike, "...is the incontestable expression of the revolutionary character of the situation," wrote Trotsky. A general strike - but launched far, far earlier - could have incontestably altered French politics.

So why on earth did unions wait so long? The French had been clamouring for a general strike for many years during the Age of Austerity.

During the 2016 Labor Code protests I was talking with the head of the CGT, France's second-largest union and the historic flag-bearer of French unionism. Its solidly-moustachioed president is Philippe Martinez, who is invariably described as a "firebrand" in the mainstream media. I asked him why aren't union leaders calling for a general strike, given the 4,000 arrests, constant police brutality, widespread rejection of the so-called "reforms", etc. He said to me: "Hey, I don't have a button marked 'General Strike' which I can just push!" It was an amusing and perhaps a fair response in 2016, but once the Yellow Vests began marching nationwide with unprecedented popular support it was clear the will among union leadership was simply not there.

I recall interviewing Christiane Lambert of the FNSEA Farmers Union in October 2019. Surely a farmers' union would back the Yellow Vests, no? Not at all. Not wanting to see the unions paint themselves in a bad light, and not wanting to perpetuate the impression that the unions see the Yellow Vests as nothing but casseurs/hooligans, I gave her many, many chances to defend the Yellow Vests - she simply never would.

"At the beginning of the Yellow Vest movement there were many farmers and rural citizens protesting for the same reasons: the problems of rural citizens being forgotten, poverty, purchasing power," said Lambert. "Given the violence and the evolution of the Yellow Vests it shows that our union was correct to not join forces with them."

It's a staggering quote from a farmers union leader, one who is surely not reflecting the political wishes of her average member. Of course her richer members - the wealthier farmers - are likely to look down on the rural working poor as much as any city industrialist looks down on the urban poor. Nor was Lambert even accurate: the evolution of the Yellow Vests has been towards greater leftism, civic-mindedness and even more violence against them and not from them.

Union leadership has simply not allowed joining with or has refused to join with the Yellow Vests.

One will respond that the Yellow Vests have prohibited that, but unions exhibit precisely the same failure as the Mainstream Media or political parties: A refusal to actually show up at demonstrations with the banners of reconciliation and the manners of humility for past mistakes. Anyway, unions could have easily avoided the Yellow Vests by simply marching any day of the week except Saturday, of course!

One would assume that unions would have seized the moment and joined in the national protest fervour, but one would be sadly mistaken: March 19, 2019, was the first day of nationwide union strikes - no action until after 18 consecutive Saturdays of nationwide Yellow Vest demonstrations. The strike day was a mere one-off.

Much like France's Trotskyist parties, France's unions cannot even get along with each other: from 2010 to 2018 France's nine major unions did not march together once.

From 2010 until 2019 I covered countless union demonstrations which were staffed with brave, selfless members - they were always at the front lines, and the tough guys whom the French rely on. But one should be clear why Yellow Vests view this essentially nostalgic elevation of unions as anti-revolutionary: The unions also eventually signed off on every major austerity measure, they supported the repression of the Yellow Vests by doing nothing about it and their general strike would be a total failure.

There cannot be any changes in the balance of socio-political power if it's not clear from whom power must be reduced - the failure of the general strike only underscored that.

The general strike of 2019-20: France's longest labor movement ever, but were they trying to lose?

The last general strike, in 1995, was also against pension reform but Macron's version was far more radical.

It was to be a world's first: a universal, "one size fits all" pension system. It was based on a nebulous points system, something which Macron had spent two years shrouding in mystery - for millennia monarchs never felt the need to divulge their plans with the plebes, as well. Also included was a back-door raising of the retirement age to 64.

From the beginning the "universal" plan made sure key groups weren't affected - the military, police, riot police, air traffic control and truckers - so "universal" was always a falsehood.

Unlike in 2010 Brussels wasn't being openly scapegoated for the rollback, but in one of his rare comments during the general strike Macron admitted he was "advancing our European agenda". The primary reason given for the pension is that the system was just too darn "complicated" - too "complicated" for whom, it was never explained. It's a nonsensical complaint, because people labor in drastically different conditions and thus require a range of retirement needs - no nation has a universal pension system for this simple reason.

The unions claimed the general strike was Macron's "Thatcher" or "Reagan" moment, and they were right: those Anglophone leaders never faced anything remotely close to the intensity and ideology of the Yellow Vests, so the Yellow Vests obviously belong in a totally different category. Compared to their weekly - and still ongoing - rebellion the union's general strike was just going through the motions. The slogan of the general strike was, "A few weeks of chaos or years of misery" - hardly an inspirational rallying cry.

Yellow Vest: "The Yellow Vests have been protesting for a year, so we clearly lit the fuse of this social movement. People are now aware that our system is attacking the average person without pity. We aren't on strike only because of the pension, but because of all the right-wing reforms over the past decade."

However, it claimed to be a "general strike" even though only railworkers were striking the entire time, and even though it was aimed at stopping just one policy: the unions totally ignored the varied and widespread demands prevalent in French society, and expressed via the Yellow Vest's list of 43 demands presented to the government a year earlier.

The strike began on December 5, 2019, and was preceded by enormous repression at the Yellow Vest marches marking their one year anniversary. Polls gave strikers a 70% approval rating, about as high as the Yellow Vests - another example of contemporary France being divided into the bourgeois bloc versus everyone else.

The primary obstacle (other than Liberalism, of course) was resignation to the strike's certain failure, due to the rules of aristocratic and oligarchic Western Liberal Democracy: every Frenchman knew that Macron had absolute control over Parliament, and therefore there was nothing they could really do but hope that he might listen. Furthermore, many workers had already had their pockets emptied by austerity - there's nothing more effective to gutting a strike than keeping workers so poor that they have no savings to strike with.

Thus many Frenchmen could only strike on the days of national protest. The working poor have bills to pay, but they would still respond to calls for solidarity. Incredibly, the unions called only seven days of national protest in over seven weeks of general strike - a major mistake.

Yellow Vest: "There must be a convergence of the different social struggles because of this terrible retirement reform. Yellow Vests are the best catalyst to bring these groups together, and to show our government how determined and angry we are."

Perhaps the biggest catastrophe was fumbling away the news of December 16: Jean-Paul Delevoye, the architect of the pension reform, admitted to receiving huge salaries from private groups after taking public office. French media detailed more than a dozen conflicts of interest between these jobs and his public post, and Delavoye was also accused of lying about the assets of himself and his wife. He resigned to try and save his pension plan, but his pension ideas were obviously now totally tainted and suspect. Yet despite this corruption-induced gift the unions did not immediately apply major pressure and demand the total withdrawal of the pension plan. If they were actually trying to win, this is what they would have obviously done.

The scandal merely forced the government to actually begin talking about the strike - until then Macron and his government spokesperson had essentially refused to discuss the strike in public - and to finally accept meeting with the unions. Such is the autocracy of 21st century Liberalism.

After three days of no progress, on December 20 the government announced no further negotiations were possible until January 7. The unions complacently followed and went on vacation too. The general strike should continue, however. For nearly three weeks there was no movement at all except for the self-sacrificing strikers - it must have been quite aggravating for the strikers. The public transport shutdown made urban areas ghost towns during the holidays. Equally dark was the Anglophone media blackout on France's turmoil, even as it had become the longest labor movement in French history.

The government wasn't just on holiday for three weeks, of course - behind the scenes they were using the same old tactic seen throughout the Age of Austerity: divide the unions in order to conquer them all. Before the new year the airline pilots union became the first to call off their strike after getting a sweetheart deal for their members.

When the holidays ended the government finally revealed - via press leaks and not during negotiations - some of the finer points of their "points system". Some information had to finally come out - the bill was due to be formally presented to the cabinet on January 24.

Thus after over one month of a general strike France finally learned what the general strike was actually all about! The autocratic silence and secrecy is astounding in its obvious violation of democratic transparency, cooperation and good faith. Union negotiators correctly complained that they had been wasting everyone's time by discussing incorrect facts about the reform! What we have here is not just autocracy but disinformation being used as a normal tool in Western Liberal Democracy.

The disinformation tactic did not stop but continued: as the general strike neared six weeks the government claimed to accept a key compromise - a withdrawal of a two-year hike to the retirement age... but then they said it would only be a temporary postponement. They didn't even clarify when the postponement would start or end. It was clearly a stalling tactic.

The nation's largest union by number of members and always the closest to the right-wing - the CFDT - continued their backing of Macron by immediately embracing the vague postponement, but other unions finally recognised the government's refusal to negotiate in good faith. It had taken them six weeks to reach this point, and they finally scrambled into action: hospital workers called an unprecedented strike and there were calls for three strike days in one week.

But it was too little, too late: on January 20 a key transport union dropped out and rail service returned to near-normal levels. On January 23 in Paris marchers carried torches in a funeral procession for the general strike, and on January 24 unions futilely called a last day of nationwide protest just as the bill was presented to cabinet.

It was over. Another union-led failure in the Age of Austerity.

Yellow Vest: "Every Saturday for 14 months we Yellow Vests have been saying that our unions are part of a deeply corrupt French system which we denounce. Our system lacks democracy and input from public citizens, and our incapable, corrupt unions have been no help to the average person."

Polls gave the biggest unions a disapproval rating of 60%, close to the 70% disapproval for Macron, the prime minister and the mainstream political parties.

Some of the biggest mistakes have already been mentioned, but the biggest is that unions never made the general strike truly "general" - only rail workers went on strike every day. It was the same tactic used in 1995, but they had no laptops or remote work back then. Thus, the general strike failed in a general strike's primary objective: to have a major economic impact on stockholders and the wealthy. The strike only shaved 0.1% off the quarter's economic growth, the same amount as the Yellow Vests, who had infinitely fewer economic levers to pull than unions.

Yellow Vest: "The people did not want the unions to retire from the field of battle. The unions should follow the people, but unions think they are the leaders. Compare the unions with the Yellow Vests - we have won many more concessions and we have been protesting for much longer, even though we face much more oppression."

Months of negotiations were needed in Parliament before the plan would be official, but the pension plan was actually ultimately called off - the coronavirus shut down normal government operations. The coronavirus also postponed Macron's other major reform for his first term - to the unemployment system. Macron has promised to implement his pension deforms immediately in his second term.

The general strike had the trajectory of every labor action during the Age of Austerity in France: Hopes start off high, but then the government buys off one or two key unions with targeted concessions. Those unions rationalise: "We've satisfied our members, as is our duty," and they pull out. Thus, the strikes are now less impactful on the pockets of the 1%, and the 1% becomes more emboldened. Those still striking feel betrayed and see a lack of genuine solidarity, and the strike soon collapses because too many people go back to work to earn money to pay their bills. It's all as easy as pie for the ruling 1% and their politicians, whereas all an increasingly-poor average worker can say each year is: "This time it will be different!" Only the Yellow Vests broke this self-defeating cycle, and they truly did wrest far more concessions than the unions did with the general strike.

Therefore, the three main results of the 2019-20 general strike were that: 1) The Yellow Vests forced France's unions to finally pull out their biggest weapon. 2) The failure to employ that weapon properly smashed another Western fake-leftist totem - that unions are the incarnation of progressive political leftism for at least a generation. 3) Unions failed to properly employ their biggest weapon because they have clearly accepted Liberalism, like the nation's fake-leftist political parties, and are ideologically barren of actual leftism.

This total tarnishing of the image of unions is a key reason behind the rise of the Yellow Vests: their clarity that unions in Western Liberal Democracy do not produce significant changes for society as a whole, only for their own dues-paying members, and thus the French were mistaken to have given unions such clout. Other than the Yellow Vests this key concept is only truly grasped in French politics by some Trotskyists.

All of this explains why Socialist-inspired countries like Iran, Cuba and China ban independent trade unions - for them the state is the union. "Independent" trade unions is a legacy of feudalism, not a legacy of Socialism; it is to prioritise competition rather than unity; it is a way for the 1% to easily divide and conquer. The reality is that union leaders always only ever saw the Yellow Vests as competitors for their ever-diminishing slice of the pie - the civic-minded and egalitarian Yellow Vests are above such grasping selfishness.

But the existence of the general strike proves that France's situation was definitely revolutionary, thanks to the Yellow Vests - too bad the unions did their best to stamp out the nation's revolutionary flame.

The Yellow Vests provided the final blow to trade union credibility, not the first

"In the old colonising countries, England and France, the labor bureaucracy, directly interested in colonial superprofits, is more powerful and conservative than anywhere else in the world, and the revolutionary masses find it very difficult there to raise their heads," wrote Trotsky.

Western imperialism, Western fake-leftism, and Western union failure - how could we have ever expected them to be separate?

However, French union workers are certainly not part of the exploitative rentier class, as Macron falsely campaigned on in 2017, and the Yellow Vests certainly have no direct share in French superprofits.

What's also certain is that French unions have played a key role in sabotaging France's attempts at political progress towards Socialist Democracy for decades - this phenomenon didn't start by their being 383 days behind the Yellow Vests.

Yellow Vest: "The average union worker supports the Yellow Vests, but not the union leaders, who have repeatedly betrayed us. The unions must finally end their selfishness, because everyone is against this government."

As World War II ended French unions have an ignominious history of failed economic protests, which have distinctly evolved from the early 20th century, Latin Europe-led era of syndicalism (unionism which can have a revolutionary or - more often, now - a reformist bent, where workers gather under the largest, industrial-sized umbrella possible) to a return of the self-interested craft (trade) unionism with its roots in the feudal era.

The post-World War II French trend of a return to craft unionism amid the decreased combativeness and relevance of syndicalism is obvious to all observers: The small businessmen of Poujade in the 1950s (many incorrectly initially called the Yellow Vests "Poujadists"), the artisans led by Gerard Nicoud in the 1970s, the truck driver gas protests in the 1990s following an increase in the price of oil, the public transport-dominated strikes against pension rollbacks in 1995 and 2019-20 - the common theme is that they were limited to one trade and/or one issue.

The broad success of 1968's success came in spite of - not because of - French syndicalist unions. Twenty percent of the population (10 million people) went on strike, but the biggest unions hadn't even called for strikes - the general strike only materialised after grassroots efforts. Philosopher Jacques Derrida even spoke of an "anti-union euphoria". The union-negotiated Grenelle Agreements were famously rejected by workers, which were considered a betrayal of the movement and another self-interested, narrow-minded grab by union leadership.

Syndicalism is a Socialist democracy-inspired theory, but even the left wing of its spectrum contains hugely divisive individualist flaws which will soon be discussed. Dividing unions by craft is the diametric opposite of successful Socialist-inspired countries, where there is one overarching union that is part of the government and not independent from it: in order to permanently reflect the Marxist-inspired totality of the class struggle; to reflect the insertion of the labouring class directly in the structure of the government; to reflect the victory of the working class over the managerial and ownership classes; to decrease societal divisions in the face of bourgeois bloc attacks both domestic and international. How can Socialism not have a vital criticism to make of the two types of unionism promoted and tolerated in Liberalism?

The fundamental difference between unionism in democracies inspired by Socialist Democracy and unionism in Western Liberal Democracy is that in the latter "independence" is considered paramount, despite its inherent tendency towards divisiveness in the face of a united bourgeois bloc. This individualism is rampant in Western society, and ultimately makes it easy for their unions to be divided and conquered. In practice, and as the 2019-20 protest reminds, such divisions mean that non-unionised workers, the retirees, students and lumpenproletariat lowest class are totally forgotten by the higher-skilled trades - except when they call for days of national protest in support of their concerns, but certainly during the decisive negotiations with the government.

Yellow Vest: "It's the unions who will be joining the Yellow Vests, because we have not been fighting just for one small group of workers but for the entire country - the pensioners, the unemployed, the handicapped, the students and everyone else. But we all want the same thing: to change not only this government, but also our capitalist system, which does not care for human beings."

Thus the primary self-conception of Western unionism is the arrogant smugness - both in the quality of his or her work and in the quality of his or her political intelligence - of the self-proclaimed elite craftsman. Indeed, at union demonstrations their members often parade around with the flinty, unfriendly, blinkered combativeness of the very last knights of a forgotten and chivalrous order - contrarily, anyone who appears sympathetic will be warmly welcomed at a Yellow Vest demonstration, especially if wearing a reflective yellow vest. The difference in reception says a great deal, I think, because it can make the difference between someone sourly joining a march one time or becoming a regular part of a sociopolitical movement.

As the 20th century progressed craft unionism was pushed more and more to the forefront by the 1%, while syndicalism - which is rather at ideological, if not open, war with Liberalism and capitalism - was suppressed, but it also withered away due to its own ineffectiveness and mistakes.

It withered in relevance due to their right-wing reformists, naturally, but also because of their left-wing's insistence that the immediate goal of syndicalism should be to transfer all the means of production to the workers themselves. This differentiates reformist syndicalism from anarcho-syndicalism, and no discussion of French leftist history would be complete without an analysis of it.

Anarcho-syndicalism is a combination of anarchism - a rejection of the state - and unionism. It puts absolute primacy on the role of the labor movement and the organised worker, and it looks with permanent skepticism at any civil servant - it combines unionism with anti-statism. It also elevates anarchism's individualistic right of self-determination over anything else. Anarcho-syndicalism's (and libertarian socialism's) biggest mistake is in exaggerating fears of a powerful state in order to wilfully divide themselves and to divide society, rendering both only more easily conquered by the bourgeois bloc.

The ideology is rooted in the ideas of French thinker Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, often called the founder of anarchism, and his influence in the history of French and Latin European leftism is profound. French unionism broadly is not anarcho-syndicalist but we cannot discount the influence of anarchism's skepticism towards hierarchy and bureaucracy as it inundates French leftist culture. Doing so would lead us to misunderstanding French unions, French leftism and also even the Yellow Vests. It would be like ignoring the similarly individualist libertarian thought should we examine American conservatism.

Western anarcho-syndicalism's most famous proponent is Noam Chomsky, who became the world's most quoted living individual by providing a vital Marxist-inspired critique of 20th century Western foreign policy while simultaneously rejecting any actual Socialist-inspired state for daring to be a state. His rise and practical political powerlessness both contrasts and parallels with the decline and practical political powerlessness of anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th century. For Anglophone cultures where unionism has been especially retarded and doesn't play a major social role, such as in the United States, the anarcho-syndicalist ideology finds parallels with the "libertarian socialism" of Murray Bookchin.

Trotsky called anarcho-syndicalism "the worst of all dictatorships" because it dangerously and uselessly rallies together workers who combine to refuse to a positive role for governments; its individualistic demands are an inherent rejection of communal unity; it isolates workers from the other sectors of society.

Spain should have been included by Trotsky along with England and France as having unions who are interested in colonial superprofits. Unsurprisingly, Spain is the home of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, which France's anarcho-syndicalist CNT is an offshoot of. As someone who has covered countless pro-Palestinian demonstrations in France I can report that you would never see a CGT flag there - and they are considered to be a left-wing union - but you might see the black and red CNT flag. There is also the occasional CNT flag at the Yellow Vests - again, the only union occasionally represented (but I should note that I am based in Paris). France's CNT played a leading role in the social conflicts of the early decades of the 20th century, but it has been reduced to these interesting historical footnotes.

The point here is to show that anarcho-syndicalism contains - like French unionism in general - both good and bad points, and also that some of these virtues and flaws are obviously contained within the Yellow Vest movement itself. These flaws are anarchism's extremism skepticism towards all hierarchy, bureaucracy, a role for the state and self-elevation. However, I believe that the Yellow Vests' primary trait is civic-mindedness, and thus it will eventually overcome this anarchist emphasis on individual empowerment over communal empowerment. I also believe that the Yellow Vests are not going to be just another French clique which insists on its own isolated superiority, but that it is constantly making enduring ties with other social movements, groups and citizens both every Saturday and on-line.

Western anarcho-syndicalism may have been considered revolutionary in the 1910s but it cannot be disassociated from over a century of practical failures.

More broadly, French unionism has obviously embraced Liberalism, just as French leftist politicians embraced Liberalism starting in the 1980s. In another failure of mere Social Democracy in Europe, across the continent unions are allowed to set the level of pay and benefits, which is then to be followed by the non-unionised. This idea that unions should lead the way - with no strings attached for the non-unionised or non-workers - has taken even firmer roots in Germanic countries. The reformism of Social Democracy always amounts to a continuation of the ancient right-wing mantra of "trickle down economics". However, this entire structure has broken due to the incredible greed of the "neoliberal" era, who replaced the more cautious Liberalists during the short era of Social Democracy (1945-75).

The internet has replaced the factory/union hall as the center of leftist politics

Our new historical reality is that social media has supplanted the factory and the union hall as the place to discuss and learn about the historic struggle for solidarity.

France's Yellow Vests perceived all this - that unions and existing political parties are self-interested, out of touch and refuse to lead the progressive way forward - and thus they turned instead to the new factories of discussion: roundabouts and Facebook, which are obviously astonishingly successful new ways of organising, discussing, learning, disseminating effective slogans and ideas, and acting in a common defense.

To paraphrase and add to the observation of Benjamin Bayart, a French militant for internet neutrality and liberty: the printing press permitted the people to read, the phonograph and radio wave permitted people to hear and the internet has permitted people to write. What they are often writing are their political opinions, and thus they are reporting on the perpetual failures and lies of Liberalism. Social media is aggregating these reports, and then also bringing these people together in real life. As Liberalist ideology has captured unions, political parties and the mainstream media, social media has become the most socialistic (and thus democratic) space available to the working-poor and working classes. These are staggeringly democratic changes in human history, and the methods of the Yellow Vests serve as a source of major political innovation for the entire globe.

The West's elite - so isolated and out of touch with the realities produced by first monarchy and then Liberalism - initially expected that social media would only be used to confirm Liberalism, and thus they initially promoted it widely. Their disenchantment with it has been spectacularly swift, and it dates from when the first (but endemic) capitalist bust period arrived in this new digital era. A Metternichian clampdown campaign began in the West in 2016 to ensure that "neoliberal" ideas and candidates could not be effectively opposed.

The West's future is more clampdowns on social media's anti-Liberalists, and yet it won't be enough. The only ideology which communities agree world-wide that should be censored is far-right thought, and this is why in Socialist-inspired countries censorship of far-right thought is accepted as a necessary good. Censorship of left-wing ideas, however, will never be fully acceptable anywhere, due its obvious aim of benevolence and goodwill to society as opposed to right-wing's elevation of elitism.

The problem is not necessarily that France's unions have led strikes which included pensioners, students, the unemployed, migrants, small businessmen, workers - in short, a totally heterogenous movement - it's that they are correctly perceived as having used these for the gain of only their own members, whereas their propaganda says that they are concerned with the good of the community and country.

The Yellow Vests fully reject - almost a century later - the long-running class-collaborationist model which France initiated in 1934 by calling for a Popular Front. Unions cannot be viewed as saviours, or even as effective leftists. They need to be looked at with the same skepticism which national political parties in Parliament must be looked at: Unionisation as a means of obtaining individual improvements in wages, conditions, safety, etc., ok - but union leaders as political leaders of the working, lower and middle classes? That would lead to the total victory of right-wing Liberalism, as the 2019-20 general strike reminded.

The Yellow Vests said no to union leadership, and that certainly contributed to their ability to produce a political "euphoria" for many months. This decision was not out of mere anarchism - it is because the Yellow Vests refuse to work within the confines of Western Liberal Democracy.

Upcoming chapter list of France's Yellow Vests: Western Repression of the West's Best Values.

Publication date: July 1, 2022.

Pre-orders of  the Kindle version may be made here.

Pre-orders of the  French Kindle version may be made here.

Chapter List of the new content

Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of '  Socialism's Ignored Success: Iranian Islamic Socialism' as well as '  I'll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China', which is also available in  simplified and  traditional Chinese.

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