Report & Essay
Africa, le pauvre.

Report & Essay

Africa, le pauvre.
Kwani (Nicolas Sarcozy)

 On 26 July, 2007, at the university of Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, Nicolas Sarkozy delivered his first speech to Africa as the President of France. Inadvertently crossing the line between empathy and condescension, his words provoked a pointed response by Cameroonian historian and writer Achille Mbembe. Both are reproduced below: the translation of Sarkozy’s speech is taken from the blogsite Dionysus Stoned; Mbembe’s reply first appeared in the Cameroon journal Le Messager, and was later translated to English by Melissa Thackway.


Sarkozy’s Speech

Ladies and gentlemen

Allow me first of all, to thank the Senegalese Government and people for their warm welcome. Allow me to thank the University of Dakar that allows me for the first time to address myself to the elite of the youth of Africa in the capacity of President of the French Republic.

I have come to talk to you with the frankness and sincerity that one owes to friends that one appreciates and respects. I appreciate and respect Africa and the Africans.

Between Senegal and France history has woven ties of a friendship that no one can undo. This friendship is strong and sincere. It is for this reason that I wanted to address, from Dakar, the fraternal greeting of France to all of Africa.

This evening I want to address myself to all the Africans who are so different the one from the other, who don’t have the same language, who don’t have the same religion, who don’t have the same customs, who don’t have the same culture, who don’t have the same history and yet recognize the other as being African. Here one finds the first mystery of Africa.

Yes, I want to address myself to all the people of this wounded continent and in particular to the youth, to you who have fought each other so much and often hated much, who at times still fight and hate each other but still recognize each other as brothers, in suffering, in humiliation, in revolt, in hope, in the sentiment that you are living a common destiny, brother through this mysterious faith that binds you to the African soil, a faith that transmits itself from generation to generation and which even exile cannot erase.

I have not come, youth of Africa, to lament with you the misfortunes of Africa. Because, Africa has no need of my laments. I have not come, youth of Africa, to take pity on your fate, because your fate is first of all in your hands. What would you do, proud youth of Africa, with my pity?

I have not come to erase the past because the past cannot be erased.

I have not come to deny mistakes or crimes – mistakes were made and crimes committed.

There was the black slave trade, there was slavery, men, women and children bought and sold as so much merchandise. And this crime was not only a crime against the Africans, it was a crime against man, it was a crime against all of humanity. And the black man that eternally “hears rising from the ship’s hold the chained curses, the sobs of the dying, the noise of one of them thrown into the sea”. This black man that can’t help repeating endlessly “and this country cried that we are brutal creatures”. This black man, I want to say here in Dakar, has the face of all humanity.

This suffering of the black man, and I don’t speak here in the sense of gender, I speak of man in the sense of a human being and off course of women and of man in its general use. This suffering of the black man is the suffering of all men. This open wound in the soul of the black man is an open wound in the soul of all men.

But no one can ask of the generations of today to expiate this crime perpetrated by past generations. No one can ask of the sons to repent for the mistakes of their fathers.

Youth of Africa, I have not come to talk to you about repentance. I have come to tell you that I consider the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity. I have come to tell you that your pain and your suffering are ours and therefore are mine.

I have come to propose to you to look together, as Africans and as French, beyond this pain and this suffering.

I have come to propose to you, youth of Africa not to forget this pain and this suffering that cannot be forgotten, but to move beyond it.

I have come to propose to you, youth of Africa, not to dwell on the past, but for us to draw together lessons from it in order to face the future together.

I have come, youth of Africa, to face with you our common history.

Africa is partly responsible for its own misfortune. People have killed each other in Africa at least as much in Europe. But it is true that a long time ago the Europeans came to Africa as conquerors. They took the land of your ancestors. They banished their gods, their languages, their beliefs, the customs of your forefathers. They told your forefathers what they had to think, what they had to believe, what they had to do. They have cut your forefathers from their past, they have torn their souls from their roots. They stole Africa’s spell. (Could also be translated as They killed Africa’s enthusiasm).

They were wrong.

They did not see the depth and the wealth of the African soul. They believed that they were superior, that they were more advanced, that they were progress, that they were civilisation.

They were wrong.

They wanted to convert the African, they wanted to make them in their image. They believed that they had all the rights and that they were all powerful, more powerful than the gods of Africa, more powerful than the African soul, more powerful than the sacred ties that men have woven patiently during thousands of years with the sky and earth of Africa, more powerful than the mysteries that came from the depths of time.

They were wrong.

They ruined a way of life. They ruined a marvellous imaginary world, they ruined an ancestral wisdom.

They were wrong.

They created anguish and misery. They fed hatred. They made it more difficult to open up to others, to exchange and to share because in order to open up oneself, to exchange and to share one must be sure of ones own identity, values and convictions. Before the coloniser, the colonised lost all confidence in himself, did not know who he was anymore, let himself be overwhelmed by fear of the other, by fear of the future.

The coloniser came, he took, he helped himself, he exploited. He pillaged resources and wealth that did not belong to him. He stripped the colonised of his personality, of his liberty, of his land, of the fruit of his labour.

The coloniser took, but I want to say with respect, that he also gave. He built bridges, roads, hospitals, dispensaries and schools. He turned virgin soil fertile. He gave of his effort, his work, his know-how. I want to say it here, not all the colonialists were thieves or exploiters.

There were among them evil men but there were also men of goodwill. People who believed they were fulfilling a civilising mission, people who believed they were doing good. They were wrong, but some were sincere. They believed to be giving freedom, but they were creating alienation. They believed they were breaking the chains of obscurantism, of superstition and of servitude. They were actually forging much heavier chains, they imposed a heavier servitude because it was the spirit, the soul that was enslaved. They believed they were giving love without seeing that they were sowing revolt and hatred.

Colonisation is not responsible for all the current difficulties of Africa. It is not responsible for the bloody wars between Africans, for the genocides, for the dictators, the fanaticism, the corruption, the prevarication, the waste and the pollution.

But, colonisation was a huge mistake that was paid for by the bitterness and the suffering of those who believed they had given all and did not understand why they were so hated.

Colonisation was a huge mistake that destroyed the colonised’s self-esteem and in his heart gave birth to this self-hatred that always results in hatred of others.

Colonisation was a huge mistake, but from it was born the embryo of a common destiny. And this idea is of particular importance to me.

Colonisation was a mistake that changed and intertwined the destinies of both Europe and Africa. And this common destiny was sealed by the blood of Africans that came to die in European wars.

And France does not forget this African blood spilled for its liberty.

No one can pretend that nothing happened.

No one can pretend that this mistake was not committed.

No one can pretend that this history did not transpire.

For better or for worse colonisation has transformed African and European.

Youth of Africa, you are heir to the most ancient African traditions and you are heir to all that the West has placed in the heart and soul of Africa.

Youth of Africa, European civilisation was wrong to believe itself to be superior to that of your ancestors, but now, the European civilisation belongs to you too.

Youth of Africa, do not yield to the temptation of purity (exclusivity) because it is a disease, it is a disease of the intellect that is the most dangerous in the world.

Youth of Africa, do not cut yourself off from that which enriches you, do not amputate a part of yourself. Purity (in the sense of exclusivity) is confinement, it is intolerance, it is a fantasy that leads to fanaticism.

I want to say to you, youth of Africa that the tragedy of Africa is not in the so-called inferiority of its art, its thought, its culture. Because, in what concerns art, thought and culture it is the West that learnt from Africa.

Modern art owes almost all to Africa. The influence of Africa contributed to changing not only the idea of beauty itself, not only the sense of rhythm, of music, of dance, but as Senghor said even the way of walking or laughing of the world in the 20th Century.

I therefore want to say, to the youth of Africa, that the tragedy of Africa does not come from the idea that the African soul would be impervious to logic and to reason. Because, the African is as logic and as reasonable as the European.

It is by drawing from the African imaginary world that your ancestors have left you, it is by drawing from their stories, their proverbs, their mythologies, their rites, by drawing from all these forms that, since the dawn of time were transmitted to and enriched generation after generation, that you will find the imagination and the power to invent a future for you. A unique future that does not resemble any other, where you will at last feel free, free youth of Africa to be yourselves, free to decide for yourselves.

I have come to tell you that you don’t have to be ashamed of the values of African civilisation, that they do not drag you down but elevate you, that they are an antidote to the materialism and the individualism that enslave modern man, that they are the most precious of legacies against the dehumanisation and the “uniformisation” of the world of today.

I have come to tell you that modern man, who experiences the need to reconcile himself with nature, has much to learn from the African that has lived in a symbiotic relationship with nature for thousands of years.

I came to tell you that this divide between two parts of yourselves is your greatest force, or your greatest weakness, according to the extent to which you bring yourself to unite them in a synthesis, or not.

But I also came to tell you that there are in you, youth of Africa, two legacies, two wisdoms, two traditions that have struggled with each other for a long time: that of Africa and that of Europe.

I came to tell you that this African part and European part of yourselves form your torn identity.

I did not come, youth of Africa, to lecture you.

I did not come to preach, but I came to tell you that the part of Europe that is in you is the fruit of a great sin of pride of the West, but that this part of Europe in you is not unworthy.

Because it is the call of freedom, of emancipation and of justice and of equality between women and men.

Because it is the call to reason and to the universal conscience.

The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history. The African peasant, who for thousands of years have lived according to the seasons, whose life ideal was to be in harmony with nature, only knew the eternal renewal of time, rhythmed by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words.

In this imaginary world where everything starts over and over again there is no place for human adventure or for the idea of progress.

In this universe where nature commands all, man escapes from the anguish of history that torments modern man, but he rests immobile in the centre of a static order where everything seems to have been written beforehand.

This man (the traditional African) never launched himself towards the future. The idea never came to him to get out of this repetition and to invent his own destiny.

The problem of Africa, and allow a friend of Africa to say it, is to be found here. Africa’s challenge is to enter to a greater extent into history. To take from it the energy, the force, the desire, the willingness to listen and to espouse its own history.

Africa’s problem is to stop always repeating, always mulling over, to liberate itself from the myth of the eternal return. It is to realise that the golden age that Africa is forever recalling will not return because it has never existed.

Africa’s problem is that it lives the present too much in nostalgia for a lost childhood paradise.

Africa’s problem is that too often it judges the present in terms of a purity of origin that is totally imaginary and that no one can hope to achieve.

Africa’s problem is not to invent for itself a more or less mythical past to help it to support the present, but to invent the future with suitable means.

Africa’s problem is not to prepare itself for the return of misfortune, as if that is supposed to repeat itself indefinitely, but to want to give itself the means to combat misfortune, because Africa has the right to happiness like all the other continents of the world.

Africa’s problem is to remain true to itself without remaining immobile.

Africa’s challenge is to learn to view its accession to the universal not as a denial of what it is but as an accomplishment.

Africa’s challenge is to learn to feel itself to be heir to all that which is universal in all human civilisations.

It is to appropriate for itself human rights, democracy, liberty, equality and justice as the common legacy of all civilisations and of all people.

It is to appropriate for itself modern science and technology as the product of all human intelligence.

Africa’s challenge is that of all civilisations, of all cultures, of all peoples that want to protect their identity without isolating themselves because they know that isolation is deadly.

Civilizations are great to the extent that they participate in the great mix of the human spirit.

The weakness of Africa, which has known so many brilliant civilizations on its soil, was for a long time not being able to participate fully in this great engagement. Africa has paid dearly for its disengagement from the world and that has rendered it so vulnerable. But from its misfortunes Africa has drawn new strength by re-engaging with itself. This re-engagement, regardless of the painful conditions of its origin, is the real force and the real chance for Africa at the moment when the first global civilisation is emerging.

The Muslim civilisation, Christianity and colonisation, beyond the crimes and mistakes that were committed in their name and that are not excusable, have opened the African heart and mentality to the universal and to history.

Youth of Africa, don’t let your future be stolen by those who only know how to combat intolerance with intolerance and racism with racism.

Youth of Africa, don’t let your future be stolen by those who want to deprive you of a history that also belong to you because it was the painful history of your parents, of your grandparents and those who went before.

Youth of Africa, don’t listen to those who want to remove Africa from its history in the name of tradition because an Africa where nothing changes anymore will again be condemned to servitude.

Youth of Africa, don’t listen to those who want to prevent you from taking your part in the human adventure, because without you, youth of Africa, who are the youth of the world, the human adventure will not be as wonderful.

Youth of Africa, don’t listen to those who want to deprive you of your roots and of your identity, want to erase all that is African, all the mystique, the religiousness, the sensitivity, the African mentality. Because in order to exchange it is necessary to have something to give, to talk to others, it is necessary to have something to say to them.

Youth of Africa, rather listen to the great voice of President Senghor who tried his whole life to reconcile the legacies and cultures at the cross-roads of which chance and the tragedies of history had placed Africa.

He, the child of Joal, who had been cradled by the rhapsodies of Griots said: “We are cultural half-breeds, and if we feel “in Black”, we express ourselves in French, because French is a language of universal vocation that addresses our message as much too the French as to others”.

He also said: “The French has given us the gift of their abstract words – so scarce in our maternal languages. Our words are naturally haloed with vigour and blood; French words radiate with a thousand fires, like diamonds, rockets that light up our nights”.

Thus spoke Leopold Senghor, who honoured all that which humanity understands of intelligence. This great poet and African wanted that Africa should start talking to all of humanity and wrote on its behalf poems in French for all people.

These poems were songs that spoke to all men of fabulous beings that guard fountains, sing in the rivers and hide in the trees.

Poems that made them hear the voices of the dead of the village and their ancestors.

Poems that lead through forests of symbols to return to the sources of the ancestral memory that every people hold at the core of its conscience like an adult holds at the core of his conscience the memory of childhood happiness.

Because every people have known this time of the eternal present, where they search not to dominate the universe but to live in harmony with it. The time of feeling, of instinct, of intuition. The time of mystery and initiation. Mystical times were the sacred and signs where everywhere. The time of magicians, sorcerers and shamans. The time when the spoken word was important because it was revered and repeated from generation to generation, and transmitted, from century to century, legends as ancient as the gods.

Africa has reminded all the peoples of the earth that they shared the same infancy. Africa has reawakened the simple joys thereof, the ephemeral happiness and this need, in which I believe so much, to believe rather than to understand, to feel rather than to reason, this need to be in harmony rather than to conquer.

Those who consider African culture to be backward, those who consider Africans to be big children, all those have forgotten that ancient Greece, which has taught us so much about the use of reason, also had its sorcerers, its diviners, its mysterious cults and secret societies, its mythology that came from the depths of time and from which we still draw today an inestimable treasure of human wisdom.

Africa, which also has its great dramatic poems and tragic legends, when listening to Sophocles, has heard a more familiar voice than it would have thought possible, and the West has recognized in African art forms of beauty that had been its a long time ago and that it felt the need to resuscitate.

Listen then, youth of Africa, how much Rimbaud is African when he places the colours on the vowels as your ancestors put colours on their masks. “Black mask, red mask, black and white masks”.

Open your eyes, youth of Africa, and don’t look anymore, as your elders do too often, at global civilisation as a threat to your identity but as something that belongs also to you.

When you would recognise within the universal wisdom also part of the wisdom that you received from your forefathers, and when you would have the will to make it grow, then will start what I wish to call the African Renaissance.

When you would proclaim that the African is not doomed to a tragic destiny and that everywhere in Africa there would be no other goal but happiness, then the African Renaissance will start.

When you, youth of Africa, would declare that there will be no other objective for an African policy but African unity, and the unity of the human species, then the African Renaissance will start.

When you would fully face the reality of Africa and come to grips with it, then the African Renaissance will start. Because the problem of Africa is that it has become a myth that everyone reconstructs for the requirements of their cause.

And this myth prevents one from facing the reality of Africa.

Africa’s reality is demographic growth that is too high for an economic growth that is too low.

Africa’s reality is that there is still too much famine, too much misery.

Africa’s reality is scarcity that provokes violence.

Africa’s reality is that development is too slow, agriculture produces too little, the shortage of roads, schools and hospitals.

Africa’s reality is a great waste of energy, of courage, of talent and of intelligence.

Africa’s reality is that of a great continent that has everything to succeed, but that does not succeed because it cannot free itself from its myths.

You and you only, youth of Africa, can achieve the Renaissance that Africa needs because only you have the force to do so.

I came to propose this Renaissance to you. I came to propose it to you so that we can achieve it together, because the African Renaissance depends to a large extent on the Renaissance of Europe and the Renaissance of the world.

I know the desire to leave that so many amongst you experience, confronted with the difficulties of Africa.

I know the temptation of exile that pushes so many young Africans to go to look elsewhere for what they don’t find here to maintain their families.

I know that it requires will and courage to attempt this adventure, to leave one’s fatherland, to leave the land where one was born and grew up, to leave behind the familiar places where one was happy, the love of a mother, a father or a brother and this solidarity, this warmth, and this communal spirit that are so strong in Africa.

I know that it requires strength of soul to confront this disorientation, this separation, this solitude.

I know what the majority of them must confront in terms of trials, difficulties and risks.

I know that some times they would go as far as to risk their lives to reach what they believe to be their dream.

I know that nothing would hold them back.

Because nothing would ever hold back the youth when they believe they are carried by their dreams.

I do not believe that the African youth are pushed to leave only by the need to flee misery.

I believe that the African youth leave, because, like all youth, they want to conquer the world.

Like all youth they have a taste for adventure and the open sea.

They want to go and see how the others live, think, work and study elsewhere.

Africa will not achieve its Renaissance by cutting the wings of its youth. But Africa has need of its youth.

The African Renaissance will start by teaching the African youth to live with the world, not to refuse it.

The African youth must feel that the world belongs to them as it does to all the youth of the world.

The African youth must feel that all will be possible, as all seemed possible to the men of the Renaissance.

Now, I know well that the African youth must not be the only youth in the world confined to home. They cannot be the only youth of the world that only have a choice between living clandestinely and withdrawing into themselves.

They must be able to acquire, outside of Africa, the competence and knowledge that they would not find in their country.

But they also owe it to Africa to place at its service the talents that they will have developed. It is necessary to return to build Africa, it is necessary to bring to the continent the knowledge, the competencies and the dynamism of these managers. It is necessary to put an end to the pillaging of the African elite of which Africa has need in order to develop.

The African youth do not want to be at the mercy of unscrupulous human traffickers who play with their lives.

What the youth of Africa want is that their dignity should be preserved. To be able to study, to work, to live decently. In the final analysis it is what all of Africa wants. Africa does not want charity or help or privileges.

What Africa wants and what it should be given are solidarity, understanding and respect.

Africa does not want that one should take charge of its future, think in its place or decide in its place.

What Africa wants is the same as what France wants: cooperation, association, a partnership between nations equal in rights and in duties.

African youth, do you want democracy, freedom, justice, law? It is up to you to decide this. France will not decide in your place. But if you choose democracy, freedom, justice and law, then France will join forces with you to build it.

Youth of Africa, globalisation such as it is, does not please you. Africa has paid too high a price dearly for the mirage of collectivism and “progressisme” to yield to that of laisser-faire.

Youth of Africa, you believe that free-trade is beneficial but that it is not a religion. You believe that competition is a means but not and end in itself. You don’t believe in laisser-faire. You know that if Africa is too naïve it would be condemned to become the prey of predators from all over the world and you don’t want that. You want a different globalisation, with more humanity, more justice and more rules.

I came to tell you that France also wants this. France wants to fight along with Europe, along with Africa and along with all those in the world who want to change globalisation. If Africa, France and Europe together want this, we shall succeed. But we cannot express this will (desire) for you.

African youth, you want development, growth, a higher standard of living?

But, do you really want it? Do you want that injustice, corruption and violence should end, property be respected and money be invested instead of embezzled.

Do you want that the state should again fulfil its responsibilities, that it should be freed from the bureaucracies that smother it, that it should be liberated from parasitism and clientism, that its authority be restored, that it rules the feudal powers and corporate lobbies.

Do you want that the rule of law should govern everywhere? That it allows everyone to know reasonably what to expect from others?

If you want this then France will be at your side to demand it, but no one is going to want it in your place.

Do you want that there should be no more famine in Africa, never again a single child who dies of hunger? Then find a way to be self-sufficient in food production. Develop food. Africa has firstly the need to produce food to feed itself. If that is what you want, youth of Africa, you hold between your hands the future of Africa and France will work with you to build this future.

Do you want to fight against pollution? Do you want that development be sustainable, that the current generations should no longer live to the detriment of future generations, that every country should pay the real cost of what it consumes and that clean technologies are developed? It is for you to decide this. But if you decide, France will be at your side.

Do you want peace on the African continent, collective security, the peaceful settlements of conflicts, an end to the infernal cycle of vengeance and of hate? It is for you, my African friends, to decide this. And if you decide (yes), France will be at your side like an unwavering friend, but France cannot want it in the place of Africa.

Do you want African unity? France also wants it because African unity will return Africa to the Africans.

What France wants with Africa is to confront the realities head-on, to conduct policies of reality and not policies of myths anymore.

What France wants to do with Africa is co-development, that is to say shared development.

France wants to have joint projects with Africa, joint centres of competitivity, joint universities and joint laboratories.

What France wants to do with Africa is to design a joint strategy within the globalisation process.

What France wants to do with Africa is a jointly negotiated policy on immigration, decided together so that African youth can be received in France and in all of Europe with dignity and respect.

What France wants to do with Africa is an alliance between French and African youth so that the world of tomorrow will be a better one.

What France wants to do with Africa is to prepare the advent of Eurafrique, this great common destiny that awaits Europe and Africa.

To those in Africa who regard with suspicion the great project of the Mediterranean Union that France has proposed to all countries bordering the Mediterranean, I want to say that in France’s spirit it is not at all about side-lining Africa, which extends south of the Sahara. On the contrary it is about making this Union the pivotal point of Eurafrique, the first stage of the greatest dream of peace and prosperity that Europeans and Africans are capable of conceiving together.

My dear friends, the black child of Camara Laye on his knees in the silence of the African night will know and understand that he can raise his head and look with confidence to the future. And this black child of Camara Laye will feel in himself the two parts of himself reconciled. And he will at last feel himself to be a human being like all members of humanity.

I thank you.
Nicolas Sarcozy’s Africa, by Achille Mbembe

How is it possible to come to Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar at the start of the 21st century to address the intellectual elite as if Africa didn’t have its own critical traditions and as if Senghor and Camara Laye, respective champions of black emotion and the kingdom of childhood, hadn’t been the object of vigorous internal refutations?

What credibility can we afford such gloomy words that portray Africans as fundamentally traumatized beings incapable of acting on their own behalf and in their own recognized interests? What is this so-called historicity of the continent which totally silences the long tradition of resistance, including that against French colonialism, along with today’s struggles for democracy, none of which receive the clear support of a country which, for many years, has actively backed the local satrapies? How is it possible to come to promise us a fanciful Eurafrica without even mentioning the internal efforts to build a unitary African economic framework?

Violation by Language

On his first tour of sub-Saharan Africa, he thus arrived in Dakar preceded by a terribly negative reputation: that of a hyper-active and dangerous politician, cynical and brutal, power-crazy, who doesn’t listen, speaks his mind and more, doesn’t skimp on the means and who, with regard to Africa and its people, shows nothing but condescension and contempt.

But that wasn’t the whole picture. Many were nonetheless willing to hear him out, intrigued if not by his political intelligence, at least by the formidable efficiency with which he has handled his victory since his election. Surprised by Rachida Dati or Rama Yade’s nominations to the government (even if there were more ministers of African origin in the Republic’s ministries and assemblies in the colonial era than today), they wanted to know if there was some kind of grand design behind the manoeuvre: that is, a true recognition, on France’s part, of the multiracial and cosmopolitan nature of its society.

He was, therefore, keenly awaited. To say he disappointed would be an understatement. Of course, the cartel of satraps (from Omar Bongo, Paul Biya, Sassou Nguesso to Idris Déby, Eyadéma Jr. et al.) were delighted at what clearly transpires as the choice of continuity in the running of “Franceafrique”, as is dubbed the system of reciprocal corruption which, since the end of the era of colonial occupation, has tied France to its African accomplices.

But, if one is to judge by the reactions expressed here and there, the editorials, the letters to the press, the interventions on private radio stations, the debates on the Internet, a very large part of French-speaking Africa – starting with the youth he chose to address – found his words absolutely incredible, if not frankly shocking. And understandably so. In all relations in which one of the parties is not free nor equal enough, the act of violation often begins with language – a language which, on the pretext of simply expressing the speaker’s deepest convictions, excuses all, refuses to expose its reasons and declares itself immune whilst at the same time forcing the weakest to bear the full force of its violence.


For those who expect nothing from France, the words pronounced at the University of Dakar were nonetheless highly revealing. Indeed, the speech written by Henri Guaino (special advisor) and de

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