Inside the nativist nationalism splitting Europe apart

As the
French presidential election approaches, Matthew Goodwin delves into what’s really
behind populist movements like Marine Le Pen’s (hint: it’s more than the
economic factor). From our partners at CIGI. 

By: /
17 April, 2017
Supporters of Marine Le Pen hold posters during a political rally in Perpignan, France, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier
Matthew Goodwin
By: Matthew Goodwin
Senior visiting fellow, Chatham House

On a grey and drizzly afternoon in March 2017, a few weeks before the people of France were due to go to the polls to elect a new president, members of London’s financial elite gathered in a boutique hotel in Mayfair. Seated in a quiet and discreet room where they would not be disturbed, the affluent and connected audience of analysts and traders had come to listen to the thoughts of a strategist for Marine Le Pen, one of the presidential candidates.

The private meeting had drawn a sizable audience. While it had been nearly 10 years since the eruption of the “Great Recession” and the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, analysts were having to monitor the events in France closely. During the preceding 12 months, the tradition of populist nationalism, of which Le Pen is a chief representative, had reasserted itself across the West. After victories for first Brexit and then Donald Trump, analysts had not only started to question the credibility of polls and pundits but also the extent to which these events were isolated outliers or whether they instead marked the onset of a longer-term period of political volatility.

Over the next 30 minutes Le Pen’s impeccably dressed emissary set out his candidate’s philosophy and how the 48-year-old presidential candidate hoped to capture the Élysée Palace. As the strategist paced up and down the room, he set out how, after taking power, Le Pen and her team would seek to fundamentally overhaul France’s social policy on immigration, Islam and integration. Policies such as clamping down on illegal migrants, putting native French workers “first” and pushing back against the perceived “Islamification” of Europe reflect how Le Pen and her party exhibit the nativist and authoritarian features of populist nationalism.

These ideas were twinned with a detailed plan to withdraw France from the single currency, hold a referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union and deliver “Frexit” — which, if successful, would split the Franco-German nucleus at the core of the European project, launched six decades ago in the belief that joint economic governance would provide a basis for peace between two nations whose enmity had fuelled two of the most destructive conflicts in human history.

Some of the investors were, unsurprisingly, skeptical of what they were hearing. As they would have been aware, while the polls suggested that support for Le Pen is strong, they also indicated that she would ultimately lose the contest. Yet her messenger was quick to push back, reminding the audience why they had attended. “Ah yes, the opinion polls. And what did they say about Brexit and Mr. Trump?” These two events, he argued, provided the ideal backdrop for their own populist crusade against France’s political and financial establishment. “This election is what we are calling the third battle,” said the strategist, whom the rules of the private meeting preclude identifying.

The recent upsets have certainly concentrated minds in Frankfurt, home to the European Central Bank, where senior officials have cited antipathy toward the euro as a not-insignificant source of risk and instability and acknowledged that Britain’s vote to leave the EU was an unwelcome and largely unforeseen development, while expressing cautious optimism that improving economic conditions will ease animosity toward the single market. But to what extent do economic factors account for the appeal of these movements, and what, exactly, is it we are witnessing across Europe?

To start, Le Pen’s quest to capture the French presidency should not be viewed in isolation. Both Le Pen’s vote and the rise of populist nationalism more generally are symptomatic of much deeper currents that are reshaping politics in the West. A “great divide” has opened up within populations and now holds the potential to radically transform our political systems. This new conflict, which is far more about values than traditional questions about how to redistribute economic resources, has been a long time coming and still has a long way to run. Having already made possible the victories for Brexit and Trump, this emerging conflict is likely to exert pressure on the centre ground and established parties, fuelling support for populist nationalism and injecting a greater amount of political volatility and risk. In short, the populist revolts that have garnered so much attention — and of which Le Pen’s movement is the latest — could represent the start rather than the end of this process. Thus, Western states may well find themselves being pushed further and further away from the bargaining, compromise and consensus that are the very essence of liberal representative democracy.

Shortly after the meeting in London, the rival candidates for the French presidency came together for a televised debate in which they would set out their competing visions for France. While five candidates took to the stage, all eyes were on the two front-runners — the populist nationalist firebrand, Le Pen, and the centrist upstart, Emmanuel Macron, in whom Europe and the euro have found an unabashed champion.

Over the preceding few weeks, Macron and Le Pen had been pulling away from the other candidates in the opinion polls, including the centre-right candidate François Fillon, who had been repeatedly battered by scandal. As she stood in front of the audience, and before millions of viewers at home, Le Pen appeared confident, and for good reason.

Presidential contests in France take place over two rounds. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, the two strongest candidates go through to a second-round runoff two weeks later. In 2002, it had been Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, who had made the dynamics of the contest familiar to a global audience when the far-right veteran had passed into the second round. Although Le Pen senior, who had competed against the former Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac, was demolished by a margin of 82 to 18, his proximity to presidential power was an important signal of what was to come.

This time around, Le Pen’s confidence stems from several factors. First, she is expected to eclipse her father’s share of the national vote when the final ballots are counted, not least because in most opinion polls she is typically recruiting more than 25 percent of the vote. In polls on the first round of the contest, which arguably offers the French people a “free hit” before having to focus their minds on the more consequential second round, Le Pen led the other candidates through much of 2017. At the end of March, she averaged almost 26 percent of the vote, compared to a nearing Macron, with 25 percent, and Fillon, with 18 percent. 

Second, if these numbers turn out to be accurate, they suggest a Le Pen-Macron runoff in the second round, a contest that Le Pen and her team relish. As her strategist argued in London, seen through Le Pen’s eyes the 38-year-old Macron is an ideal opponent against which the Front National (FN) can further establish its brand as an anti-establishment force. After a wealthy upbringing and elite education, Macron went to work as an investment banker with Rothschild & Cie Banque. For Le Pen, who is spending much of the campaign highlighting her economic protectionism and warning against the perils of what she calls “savage globalization,” Macron is an ideal rival against whom to contrast her offering and reframe the underlying public debate in Europe as a contest between “patriots” and “globalists.” 

Despite facing a room full of financial investors, Le Pen’s strategist did not hold back from sharing the type of populist ballot question the FN aims to plant in voters’ minds: “Macron is a living and breathing embodiment of the globalist elite. How can a man from Rothschild understand French workers?”

Le Pen’s pitch to the economically left-behind makes sense. Her party has typically polled strongest among groups in society that have felt most at risk from globalization, free trade and rapid economic development.

Between 1981 and 1995 the number of people voting for her father and the FN rocketed from fewer than 100,000 to more than 4.5 million, many of whom were economically marginal. Although the FN had initially done quite well among the middle classes and white-collar workers, by the 1990s academic studies of the party’s electorate had started to talk about the “proletarianization” of Le Pen’s vote — its growing prominence among the working classes.

Notably, it had been during the 1995 presidential election — long before the Great Recession or 9/11 — when Le Pen senior had won support from no less than 25 percent of the unemployed and 30 percent of blue-collar workers, groups that would hereafter become some of the most ardent supporters of the FN’s anti-immigration, anti-elite and increasingly anti-Islam message.

Thus, in many areas of France, such as the outskirts of Paris and in the industrial north, the rise of the Le Pen dynasty often came at the expense of the traditional left, a legacy that lives on today. Based on the most recent surveys of the 2017 election, it is clear that Marine Le Pen polls much stronger in the southern regions of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the northern Hauts-de-France region that borders Belgium to the northeast and the English Channel to the northwest, and the neighbouring Grand Est region in northeastern France, the border of which meets four other countries — Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland. It is in these fading industrial areas or traditional conservative bastions where the Le Pen brand will find its most enthusiastic supporters and draw strength in future. 

Both Le Pen’s vote and the rise of populist nationalism are symptomatic of much deeper currents.

Drill down into Le Pen’s vote and other reasons emerge for her confidence in the path the FN is taking. One reason why many analysts did not see Brexit coming was that they failed to devote sufficient attention to the “enthusiasm gap” that was evident in the polls. The gap concerned a striking difference in the outlook of pro-Brexit “Leave” voters and pro-EU “Remain” voters — the Leavers were consistently more likely to tell pollsters that they were certain about their vote and committed to turning out. That the enthusiasm gap mattered became evident on polling day when around 2.5 million mainly older and working-class voters turned out to vote who had not been adequately identified in the opinion polls.

Much of this analysis also applies to the Le Pen electorate, which, although smaller, is similarly committed. When those who are intending to vote for Le Pen are asked whether they are definitely certain about their choice, over 80 percent say they are — compared to 69 percent for the scandal-battered Fillon (whose voters remain loyal) and only 55 percent for the insurgent Macron. This underlines how Macron, who has started his own movement (En Marche!) still has some way to go to translate support into committed votes. But it also suggests that even if Le Pen and her team fail in their quest to capture the presidency they will almost certainly mobilize a strong and highly committed vote along the way.

These votes are also driven by a distinctive set of concerns. Much like populist nationalist voters across the continent, Le Pen’s supporters, when asked to identify their three most pressing concerns, opt for immigration, terrorism and security. These are people who feel as though their nation and national identity are under threat from a toxic cocktail of immigration, the refugee crisis, Islam, terrorists and rapid cultural change. In sharp contrast, those who are flocking to Macron prioritize social security, unemployment and the trustworthiness of the candidate. Although Macron’s pitch is well tuned to the concerns of the average French voter, Le Pen’s message has fairly widespread sympathy, if not direct support.

Many, including Le Pen and her strategists, view these numbers as a reflection of their strategy to broaden her appeal. Since taking over the FN from her father in 2011, Marine Le Pen has been on a public quest to detoxify the brand and connect with groups in society that historically shunned the Le Pen dynasty. Ever since her party’s formation in 1972, the FN, like other populist nationalist parties in Europe, has struggled to make big inroads among women, the middle class and young voters. 

But there are signs that this could be changing, and not only in France. In the latest polls, Le Pen has polled remarkably strongly among French youth. According to a regular tracker by the pollsters Ifop, an eyebrow-raising 24 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds are intending to vote for Le Pen in the first round, while only 15 percent of those over 64 years of age are planning to do so. Similar findings have emerged in countries such as Austria, where one of the most supportive groups for populist nationalism has been young men. Such findings are a powerful reminder of how the popular narrative that populism is merely the last refuge for old white men is unconvincing.

Irrespective of the result, Le Pen looks set to entrench her party and its euroskeptic brand of nationalism as a serious force, and she will quickly turn her attention to the ensuing legislative elections in June. More broadly, she is also a representative of a wider populist nationalist movement in Europe now transitioning from the margins to the mainstream.

Last year, in April, a largely overlooked presidential contest in the small country of Austria served as a powerful reminder of the lingering strength of populism. Austria has in the past served as a laboratory for ideas and movements that spread throughout Europe. During this particular contest, and for the first time in Austrian history, none of the candidates from the mainstream parties made it into the second-round runoff. Instead, the populist nationalist Freedom Party of Austria won the first round with an unexpectedly strong 35 percent of the vote. In the second-round runoff between the populist nationalists and an independent candidate aligned with the Greens, the Freedom Party narrowly lost by just half a percentage point. 

When the Austrian Freedom Party failed to win that election many in Europe’s establishment let out a sigh of relief, while overlooking the fact that during the previous contest in 2010 the party — whose founders included former Nazis — had polled only 15 percent. Nonetheless, populist nationalism soon reasserted itself. The next month, in June 2016, populist mobilization of anti-immigrant and anti-elite sentiment in the United Kingdom was a major reason why the country opted for Brexit. As shown in a new book my colleagues and I have written on the Brexit vote, a belief that leaving the EU would lower immigration into the country and reduce the risk of terrorism were major drivers of the vote to leave, revealing how the referendum was far more about identity than economic interest.

Since 2012, Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), who had long rejected any formal alliance with Le Pen, played a key role in cultivating the Brexit vote by merging the issue of EU membership with rising public concerns over immigration. Along the way, and as Le Pen senior had done throughout the 1990s, Farage built bridges with an economically left-behind, working-class and socially conservative section of the electorate that would go on to ensure a majority vote for Brexit. From one working-men’s club to the next, the UKIP leader toured the country, claiming that due to historically unprecedented immigration the country had finally reached “breaking point.”

Five months later it was the turn of Donald Trump to shock the world and reignite the debate over populism, even if much of his support was drawn from mainstream Republicans as well as counties that had previously voted for Barack Obama. This event was followed by a rerun of the Austrian presidential election in December 2016, after irregularities with absentee ballots had been revealed. While the populist nationalist Freedom Party failed again to cross the finishing line, this time finishing eight points behind, it still walked away with 46 percent of the national vote.

Nor have historically liberal nation-states such as Sweden remained immune. Since 2010, the Sweden Democrats, a party rooted in neo-Nazism, emerged from nowhere to become the third-most popular party in the country and, in March, amid lingering public concern over the arrival of refugees, was rated by YouGov as the most popular, holding support from more than one in four voters. Similarly, although not coming from an overtly liberal tradition, Germany was also noted for the absence of a successful populist nationalist movement in the postwar era. Yet, since 2013, Alternative for Germany, a party that has campaigned against the euro as well as the “immigrant Lumpenproletariat of the Afro-Arab world,” has won seats in 10 of the country’s 15 state parliaments. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party, which has called for stricter immigration laws and led an initiative to ban the construction of new minarets from which Muslims are called to prayer, became the largest party in the Federal Assembly in 2015.

Such examples reveal how populist nationalists have become a serious and durable political force. Indeed, according to one recent analysis by two political scientists, since the 1960s the average share of the vote for these parties has more than doubled from 5.1 to 13.2 percent. While this might not sound like much, during the same period their average share of seats has tripled, from 3.8 to 12.8 percent. It is this stubbornly persistent growth that also allowed populist nationalist parties to join governing coalitions in no fewer than 11 Western states — with parties such as the Austrian Freedom Party, the Italian Northern League and the Swiss People’s Party already having experience of national power. Trump was by no means the first modern-day populist to enter the corridors of power.

Although such breakthroughs are often traced to financial crises, it should be underlined that much of the growth of support for these parties actually took place between 1990 and 2008, during a period of relative economic stability and growth and long before the arrival of the Great Recession and Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. In fact, according to a recent academic paper, whereas regions that have grappled with high unemployment during the crisis saw a decline of support for these parties, regions with relatively low rates of unemployment and those that maintained high growth rates saw the strongest support of all. 

That the crisis is not a major cause for the eruption of support for these parties is further reflected in the fact that in those democracies hardest hit by the economic crisis — namely Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus — these parties are almost completely absent. Or, to put it another way, they have been at their most successful in places such as Austria, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, which in comparative terms have enjoyed some of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe or have some of the most developed welfare states in the modern world. If this trend is about economic scarcity, then such examples are rather awkward outliers.

How, then, can we explain the appeal of these movements? As hinted above, one of the most popular answers to this question focuses squarely on the role of economic scarcity — on group conflicts over tangible resources such as jobs, welfare and housing, tensions that many argue have been exacerbated by the Great Recession, the sovereign debt crisis and a prolonged period of fiscal austerity. “The politics of populist anger,” wrote The New York Times, “are on the march across Europe, fuelled by austerity, recession and inability of mainstream politicians to revive growth.”

Closely linked to this narrative is the so-called “left-behind thesis,” the idea that across the West it has mainly been older, white and working-class voters who have turned to populist nationalists. Left behind by the rapid economic transformation of their national economies, globalization and — perhaps in the future — fresh rounds of automation, such voters, we are told, have hunkered down and turned to the populist right as an outlet for their economic frustration and relative deprivation. 

It is worth remembering that this is not a new perspective. In the immediate postwar years, academics Seymour Lipset and Daniel Bell similarly argued that fascism and McCarthyism in the United States had each drawn most of their support from small-business owners and the lower-middle classes who felt left behind by the onset of industrialization and were economically insecure (although, reflecting the time at which they were writing, Lipset and Bell also saw the radical right as a home for the psychologically imbalanced). 

In the aftermath of Brexit such arguments were recycled. Many, for example, quickly pointed to the way in which the average vote for Brexit was only 38 percent among those who earned more than £3,700 per month but 66 percent among those who earned less than £1,200 a month. Similarly, in their quest to explain what they called the “Brexit-Trump Syndrome,” two economists argued that “there can be little doubt that in Michigan and Merthyr Tydfil, South Carolina and Sunderland, the dissatisfaction of people on below-average incomes drove the outcome.”

But this narrow economics-based theory is far from convincing, not least for the reasons outlined above. Instead, to really make sense of this phenomenon, we need to return to the period of European history when Le Pen senior and his lieutenants first gathered in Paris to establish the FN. It was at this time, in 1971, when across the Atlantic the thinker Ronald Inglehart was releasing his pioneering research on how values were changing in the West. In the years to come his work would generate a rich tradition of social science research on the role of values in explaining political behaviour and why some voters behave the way that they do.

Using large-scale surveys that tracked changes across different birth cohorts, Inglehart was one of the first to suggest that “a transformation may be taking place in the political culture of advanced industrial societies.” It was a transformation that centred on the straightforward but also compelling idea of “postmaterial value change.” 

As each generation replaced the last, and Western states were becoming more affluent and more highly educated, citizens were moving away from materialist concerns about economic and physical security. Instead, and after the “30 glorious years” of postwar economic growth and the expansion of university education, subsequent generations were embracing new values that included notions of autonomy, human rights, quality of life and self-expression. Inglehart called this a “silent revolution.”

This underlying shift had very real political implications, not least because it expanded space for more socially liberal movements that in the 1960s and 1970s were actively making the case for policies such as rights for women, ethnic minorities and same-sex couples, while also championing multiculturalism, environmentalism and the expansion of transnational organizations and identities, notably the push for European integration. 

For many in the affluent and socially liberal new middle class, European integration became entwined with their political identity. While this project was initially aimed at strengthening economic links between European states, it soon blossomed into something more. In 1999, the euro single currency was launched, and then, in the early 2000s, the principle of free movement, whereby citizens from across the EU were free to travel, work and settle in any other EU member state. Such changes dealt a direct blow to traditional conceptions of border control, national sovereignty and identity — which had held sway since the French revolution of 1789 gave rise to the modern nation-state.

Not everybody in society was participating in, or supporting, this change of values that was also well represented in much of the media and political class. An ensuing counter-mobilization to this value drift was first identified by Piero Ignazi, a scholar who published an important but largely forgotten essay in 1992. Writing 20 years after Inglehart, the academic from Bologna, Italy, was chiefly interested in why an earlier generation of populist nationalists were suddenly attracting support — charismatic populists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Gianfranco Fini in Italy and Jorg Haider in Austria. Ignazi asked an important question: why were these countries experiencing the opposite of what had been predicted by Inglehart’s theory?

His answer was that established politics in the West was experiencing the beginnings of a cultural backlash — a reassertion of nationalist and traditional ideals by voters who felt neglected by the main parties, but in particular the “Third Way” social democrats who had shifted their attention instead to middle-class post-materialists while neglecting their core blue-collar workers and, on the right, social conservatives. As these voters began to mobilize politically and became more skeptical over ideas such as European integration, the backlash began to push issues such as immigration, law and order and security up the political agenda, a shift that Ignazi argued had been partly legitimized by the rise to prominence of “hard” centre-right politicians in the 1970s and 1980s as embodied by Margaret Thatcher. “A mounting sense of doom in contrast to postmaterial optimism,” he wrote, “has been transformed into new demands, mainly unforeseen by the established conservative parties. These demands include law and order enforcement and, above all, immigration control, which seems to be the leading issue for all new right-wing parties.” Ignazi referred to this reaction as the “silent counter-revolution.” 

This underlying change in the foundation of Western politics really mattered because it meant that voters were gradually less influenced by the traditional divides over economic redistribution and the clearly defined class-based interests that had channelled them fairly neatly into left and right. Unlike in earlier decades, when political conflict was centred far more on questions such as how to redistribute goods, manage the welfare state and taxation, these debates were now joined or eclipsed by the rise of new social and cultural issues (or what is sometimes referred to as the “new cultural cleavage”). The result was that identity-related issues such as immigration rocketed up the list of priorities for voters and the stage was set for a nationalist, anti-elite and authoritarian project that offered working and lower-middle-class voters an attractive cocktail of cultural and economic protectionism. 

Crucially, these underlying divides were then sharpened further by the onset of higher rates of immigration and ethnic diversity across much of the West, which continue to this day through the free movement of EU nationals across the continent and the post-2015 refugee crisis. In the minds of many voters, these changes have had an important effect by fusing the idea of European integration with immigration and, increasingly, security concerns. Opposition to the EU is thus not simply about anxiety over distant elites in Brussels but a much deeper sense of concern over broader “threats” to the nation. For many voters the experience of these changes further revealed and entrenched the underlying values divide: whereas cohorts with an outlook that could be described as more socially liberal and post-materialist celebrated and welcomed these changes, traditionalists and those with more authoritarian tendencies felt profoundly under threat. Indeed, recent research on the drivers of anti-EU sentiment shows clearly that one key ingredient is voter concern over how the issue of immigration is impacting on their national country and identity.
Opposition to the European Union is not simply about anxiety over distant elites in Brussels.

Peer into the Brexit vote, and we can see these factors at work. Among those who oppose gender equality or equality for same-sex couples, or who want to see stiffer sentences for criminals or favour the death penalty, support for Brexit was significantly higher than among those who might be characterized as more socially liberal. Indeed, whereas the average “Leave” vote among those who want to see the return of capital punishment was 71 percent, among those who oppose the death penalty the average “Leave” vote was only 20 percent. Once these value-based concerns are included in a statistical analysis of the Brexit vote, factors such as income do not have any effect at all. It is also worth noting that such views are especially prominent among groups of voters that used to endorse the centre-left. In fact, Brexit was a majority view in nearly 70 percent of seats held by the Labour Party. Contrary to what is widely assumed, the schism in the electorate driving these outcomes is primarily a reflection of the underlying values divide in the West.

By the early years of the twenty-first century, therefore, large numbers of voters were experiencing what social scientist Karen Stenner calls “normative threats” — critical catalyst moments that highlight threats to the norms that make “us” an “us”: some demarcation of people, authorities, institutions, values and norms that for some folks at some point defines who “we” are, and what “we” believe in. 

For many of the voters who have drifted toward Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders or Donald Trump, the perceived threats to the nation are now abundant, including immigration and ethnic change, terrorist attacks, the recent refugee crisis and increasingly strident debates about whether or not Islamic values are consistent with those in the liberal West. Such events have served as catalysts, making citizens aware that different groups in society hold fundamentally different outlooks on these issues. For instance, whereas liberals in much of the media and political classes celebrated Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome more than one million refugees into Germany, social conservatives and authoritarians saw this as a normative threat to their national community, identity and values. And unlike earlier decades, when the far right in Europe was highly stigmatized and toxic, today a new generation of populist nationalists have emerged to give conservatives and authoritarians a much greater sense of agency.

The takeaways for those with a stake in international governance? There are three broad messages. First, given that the populist revolts we have witnessed are rooted more strongly in conflicts over values than about economic scarcity, it appears distinctly unlikely that they will disappear in the short term. On the contrary, given ongoing public angst over the diminished capacity of national politicians to respond to international challenges, further political volatility seems likely, which will have implications from refugee policy to financial policy. Second, and as a consequence of these trends, the EU and the process of European integration more generally will remain under pressure as public support for anti-EU parties persists or magnifies. The coming year will see, in addition to the contest in France, votes in Germany, Italy and Austria, followed by the next set of European Parliament elections in 2019. It appears unlikely that “the centre” as broadly defined will ultimately be the major beneficiary from this period. Finally, irrespective of how Marine Le Pen performs in France or whether voters elect authoritarian parties to government, populist nationalist movements should be understood to now be fairly well embedded within many of the political systems across the continent. 

This trend is as much about culture as economics — a fact underappreciated by many, but grasped firmly by the strategists guiding these movements. 

It is this backdrop that allows an emissary for Pen to command the attention of London’s financial elite and speak with such confidence about one day implementing a nativist and authoritarian program — and that keeps eyes trained on Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the 27-year-old niece of the presidential candidate, who, as an MP in the hard-line tradition of her grandfather, is seen as a future leader of a family dynasty that is already leaving its mark on Europe. 

This piece was first published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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