S.O.S Verviers

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Verviers, Walloon capital of water, jewel of the Vesdre valley, currently has 56,000 inhabitants. Once a prosperous center of European wool production, it is now facing a complex socio-economic situation. It has 25% unemployment(1), persistent poverty(2), a low qualification rate among job seekers and « immigrant neighborhoods » that are estimated to be « in great difficulty », according to a landmark study on poverty in Belgium(3).

Faced with these challenges, the socialist mayor Claude Desama has endorsed a pharaonic shopping mall project known by the name of its promoter « Foruminvest-City Mall ». It is a commercial center whose planned location is the heart of the city, in its most topographically structuring and aesthetic place.

According to the mayor, this mega-area would allow the « revitalization of the urban center », to « turn towards the future ». At the beginning, it was a question of covering the Vesdre over 260 meters. This first version of the project provoked the ire of the population. And its mobilization. The fifth and current version still provides for a floor area of 15,500 m², 85 stores on three above-ground levels and 1,147 parking spaces on three basement levels. A 250,000m³ box that still encloses the river.


The public debut of this case dates back to the winter of 2005(4). On December 5, members of the Common Council and the city’s merchants are invited to a presentation organized by the developers. At the end of the show, the elected officials look grim. The faces are dejected, the glances elusive. The merchants, who are supposed to be more receptive than the population to the promises of business, are not seduced either: they judge the project to be aesthetically horrible and they are well aware that the establishment of such a commercial behemoth benefits first and foremost the big brands, which often mean the ruin of small businesses(5). The project is like a bomb.


Stunned and angry, several citizens formed a de facto association called Vesdre-Avenir(6), which became the main actor and organizer of the resistance. The association has a logo in the shape of a drop with a clear motto: « Save the Vesdre ».

To begin with, you need an overview of the project, a complete description to better understand its implications. But this overview is not available, the plans are not released, and the city does not clearly communicate about the mall. The citizens therefore decide to create their own images and representations of this project to better understand its nature. They use, gather all the available information, incomplete and scattered, to visualize the thing and make it more concrete.

This will be a key issue of mobilization in the face of a dynamic driven from the arcanes of local democracy. One of their first actions will be to make a model of the project to give the (de)measure of it. The result is striking: seeing a few computer images projected rapidly on a screen gives a vague idea of the planned monstrosity. Representing it in three dimensions on a support as large as a billiard table allows to better understand what is being played. The model will remain a founding support for the struggle of the Verviers. Since the public authorities are not playing their part, making one reassuring promise after another and making nonsense of it, other images will be created with each new version of the shopping center project to demystify the declarations and illustrate more clearly the evolution of the file.


From the beginning of 2006, the actions multiplied and took various forms: information-debate evenings, support dinners, publication of an information and awareness-raising brochure, leaflets, political lobbying, mobilization of personalities, participation in various events, cleaning of the Vesdre, exhibitions, posters… They quickly took on a considerable scope, making light of the obstacles and pitfalls. Protest posters are forbidden? Light garlands form the letters on the walls of the houses. Is local democracy being flouted? A monument symbolizing the people is gagged, etc. The intelligence of the struggle systematically takes non-violent forms that allow a large number of people to participate, embodies the respectful intention of the participants and forcefully challenges the population by making the aggression of this megalomaniac project, which is completely out of step with the expectations of the citizens, appear in contrast and in an obvious manner.


At the beginning of 2006, Vesdre-Avenir launched a petition. As signatures pour in by the thousands, local party chapters are preparing their positions that will prove to be temporary. The Mouvement Réformateur (MR) is calling for a popular consultation from the outset, followed by the ecolo. The CDH and the ecologists are against the project and pretend to hit the table.

At the same time, the positions of associations and personalities are multiplying against the destructive project: SRAVE (Royal Society of Architects of Verviers and Surroundings), Inter-Environment Wallonia, Urbagora, Friends of the Earth, Natagora, Operation Romanian Villages, Bernadette Merenne (Professor of Economic Geography at the University of Liège), Jean-Marie Pelt, René Schoonbrodt, but also artists such as René Hausmann, François Waltery, Julos Beaucarne, Pic-Pic André, Marka and Maurane. Support of this kind is accumulating and will be counted by the dozens.

Among them, that of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory body of UNESCO, which wrote an open letter to the Municipal College of Verviers on October 24, 2007. It is underlined that several aspects of the project are in violation of the Washington Charter (International Charter for the preservation of historic cities), and finally that  » the realization of such a project would constitute in the very long term a major handicap to the harmonious development of the center of Verviers.

The observation of the total inadequacy of the project with the city of Verviers will not cease to be repeated and refined during the years. Visiting Verviers, Nikos Salingaros, Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, an international leader in urban planning and architectural theory, publishes an open letter in the June-July 2010 edition of the « Journal de l’architecte » about the Foruminvest project. In particular, he states:  » It seems very clear to me that Verviers is preparing to take a dangerous step towards urban self-destruction. The second step that will follow is the commercial and cultural decline.  »


The petition finally reached 20,000 signatures. For a city of 56,000 inhabitants, this is significant. The association Vesdreavenir deposits the signatures at the commune.… who then states that the petition does not exist. Oufti! (7) A political attack is launched against the association arguing a lie that aims to manipulate public opinion. However, the association had the good sense to have the municipal official sign an acknowledgement of receipt, attesting to the effective deposit of the 20,000 signature petition. An administrative investigation is opened into the forgetful official. We are still waiting for the results (familiar tune).

The colossal success of the petition indicating a very strong concern of the Verviers, the repeated blockings of the socialist party are all the more badly received. In the first months of 2007, Vesdre-Avenir decided to obtain a popular consultation, provided for by the municipal law, so that the city could express itself on its future. The association proposes the following question:  » As a Verviers concerned about the development of your city, do you refuse to allow the construction of a building on the Vesdre? In 15 days, 7144 letters requesting the organization of a popular consultation were collected and deposited at the commune! Which checks the slips one by one. It’s long, very. But all are compliant. Popular consultation should be possible. After months of procrastination, in June 2007 the Municipal Council voted unanimously for the popular consultation, subject to the opinion of the regional minister Philippe Courard, also a member of the PS. As if pulled out of a hat, an obscure adviser in the Minister’s office indicated that the popular consultation was not possible because it concerned the Vesdre, a watercourse that is not communal! A kind of subterfuge that proves once again the undemocratic attitude of these elected officials. As if the establishment of a megamall could in no way have anything to do with the interest of the municipality that carries it, which legally justifies the popular communal consultation in Belgium. However, the city’s lords and ladies still proposed a consultation on July 2, 2007, and put forward 5 questions, including this one:  » Besides the creation of a very important number of direct and indirect jobs, do you think that a shopping center that welcomes new brands will increase the attractiveness of Verviers? « Even the local press notes that there is something seriously wrong here and calls the PS-MR initiative « phony ».(8). In the meantime, the disconnect between the people of Verviers and the elected officials is almost complete. The citizens solicit, question, petition, ask to be consulted, the elected officials refuse and systematically block. The rupture was consummated in October 2007 when the Minister Courard cancelled the two consultations, the « bogus » one because it was not on the agenda of the Communal Council, the citizen one because the coverage of the Vesdre would be a regional competence. It’s more than a discomfort.…


Alongside these anti-democratic assaults, the promoters of the mall are using « persuasion » methods from another age.

We are told that some opponents of the City Mall project are being intimidated at work. The police are very present in front of some stores where there is a peaceful order. On another day, dozens of residents put up banners on private facades with the agreement of the owners: the authorities ask them to remove them on the grounds that it is not a cultural display. A zeal that one would like to see with all non-cultural displays! In June 2007, while 7000 citizens were waiting for the municipality to validate the request for popular consultation, Vesdre-Avenir distributed leaflets to invite to an information meeting on the evolution of the project. The police intervene and forbid the distribution. The next morning, while the invitation is presented in person, without leaflets, police officers return and threaten to issue tickets if the activists continue. A member of Vesdre-Avenir went to the police station to file a complaint but the police officer present refused to receive her… For the time being, the regional press made headlines denouncing this scandal.

And the political vexations continue, the stubbornness to muzzle the resistance does not weaken. However, the demands are not revolutionary. There is no question of collectivizing the Verviers’ facilities, nor of overthrowing capitalism, nor of becoming a vizier instead of a vizier. « We want to be citizens, and say to the politicians: what you want to do is not good, we don’t want it » say the activists. They have met with all parties throughout their struggle. Several elected officials were taken aback by the stories, many of which they were hearing for the first time. The media treatment remains too timid. There have been a few sparks here and there on one-off events like those mentioned above. But no substantive treatment. In view of the magnitude of the project, which concerns all the Verviers and even the region, on the one hand, and what the citizens who refuse this project have suffered on the other, this cautious tone is akin to a media silence that is very disturbing. What is really going on in Verviers?


The citizen mobilization is opposed by a treatment worthy of banana republics. On the other side of the same coin, the propaganda machine is running at full speed.

To make propaganda, you need a message and channels of distribution.

As far as the message is concerned, the catchphrase is simple and used everywhere in Wallonia: Foruminvest presents its projects as those of « the winning city ». in Verviers, it is also an initiative of « revitalization of the district ».

To have a project recognized as being a revitalization allows Wallonia to get the « timbale »: for every two euros brought by the promoter, the Region brings an additional one(9). And the icing on the cake is that revitalization allows for the expropriation of property that would have to be destroyed to complete the project. This is the first reason to present the Foruminvest project as a « neighborhood revitalization » operation

From a propaganda point of view, it is also beneficial. This is a technique widely used by all the concrete builders in the world: even if it means demolishing a neighborhood, expropriating its long-time residents, speculating on investments backed by public money, and fuelling real estate inflation, the simple fact of presenting a project as an innovation, capable of « revitalizing » a place, allows the debate to be smoked.

This kind of message has an additional interest for the concretists of all kinds: they can then effortlessly denounce as « negative », « pessimistic », « grumpy », those who will have the nerve not to accept a disaster fraudulently adorned with the trappings of « positivity ». An old trick, a hackneyed trick that nevertheless never ceases to produce its very concrete and frighteningly effective effects. To present in a favorable light what is not, to make the world walk on its head by reversing the meaning, here is an Orwellian technique that the malicious powers use abundantly.

The mayor of Verviers, Claude Desama, will never hesitate to pull at all forces on this bad string by adding sometimes even tons. Thus, during a communal council where two hundred inhabitants questioned him, he arrived surrounded by a dozen police officers. The exercise is spectacular, relayed in images by the press, and allows to create the illusion of an elected official confronted with a dangerous crowd that deserves the deployment of the forces of order. He’s back at it again. The mobilized citizens are called « extremists », which the press still relays. Don’t waste any more, we reach the extremes of the political manipulation of low level. The next time, will the mayor be tempted to let the dogs out to face the cohort of the « va-nu-pieds », the indignant ones ready to destroy the communal and citizen interest?

The « positive » message is used in all sorts of ways. Thanks to the Foruminvest project, Verviers is a « winning city », « fighting against poverty », and is becoming a « city on the move » with « renewed ambition ». Read the exact opposite and you will approach the reality. When one plans to implant a vast blockhouse of mini-markets in the heart of a historic city, one takes a deadly direction, that of decrepitude and asphyxiation, as the inhabitants have immediately understood and as the best experts have underlined.

As for the distribution channels of these messages, they are all the more numerous as Foruminvest is a financial monster for the region, and the project is supported by the PS majority. This helps. Whole pages are bought in the press. Advertising campaigns are posted in the city with the municipal stamp. Personalities are invited to the rescue, such as Jacques Bredael, ex-presenter at RTBF, who comes twice to promote the project and the promoter. Propaganda is relayed all over the place. But the facts are stubborn.

The battle of images, words and representations in general is also the battle of the imaginary. It is central to the political battle. In Verviers, although the forces involved are completely unequal, there are many signs that the promoters of the blockhouse-on-Vesdre are losing on this terrain.


And then, there is this way of putting oil in the wheels, of coaxing the (future) customer, by distributing the consolation prizes. It kills two birds with one stone: you make people happy and you get them interested in the project, by linking them to it. Could they complain later, when they have benefited from the financier’s largesse? It is well known that one does not spit in the hand that gives alms. Foruminvest becomes the sponsor of the local first division basketball club. The soccer club, the mobile skating rink, a small festival (Fiesta city), the festival « Au film de l’eau ». Foruminvest invests in Verviers, so much so that the press is finally beginning to wonder whether it is not a matter of buying silence, whether it is not all « passive corruption ».

The question remains, while the mayor is astonished: « If this is passive corruption, we’ll all go down! Verviers is not Charleroi, where the media had made much of questionable practices. The promoter’s investments are currently concentrated on Verviers, Namur and Mons. And also Herve, in a more modest measure, where the cement manufacturer sponsors the « Bel’Zik festival ». Herve, where Mr. Jeholet, President of the MR federation of the Verviers district since October 2008, is a local councillor. From there to say that this could have a link with the PS-MR coalition in Verviers that appeared after the 2006 municipal elections, there is a step that we will not take. What the hell is Foruminvest doing at a festival in Herve? Here again the question remains.


Is there a single elected official in the municipality or in the region who has the stature to oppose these practices and this project? The PS of Mr. Desama has endorsed the project from the beginning and therefore there is nothing to expect from this side. He had shown it in May 2006. The City Council, put under pressure by Foruminvest, which threatened to withdraw if the agreements with the city were not signed, had then taken place with closed doors and guarded by the police. The public inquiry was not finished, but the PS and the MR, already united for the occasion while the MR was still in opposition, rejected the CDH amendments and voted in favor of Foruminvest. It was on this day that two hundred demonstrators booed these elected officials who flouted the rules of democracy in order to pass a project against which 17,000 signatures had already been collected at that time… Mr. Desama had also indicated since the beginning of the project that he wanted to taste the fruits of the fiscal « manna from heaven » that the arrival of the blockhouse would represent.

The MR, after pretending to be opposed to the project, very quickly allied itself with the PS, as mentioned above, in order to gain power and to satisfy some private interests.

After refusing to vote on the May 2006 agreements with the promoter imposed by the PS majority and after the former CDH environment minister Benoît Lutgen announced in December 2007 that he would refuse to issue a permit that would lead to the covering of the Vesdre and its banks, the CDH, distorted by the attitude of Secretary of State Melchior Wathelet, then showed itself to be much more cautious in its opposition to the project.

This left Ecolo, whose local staff had been firmly opposed to the project from the start.


There was hope on that side and the former co-chairman of the party Jean-Michel Javaux, who came to meet Vesdre-Avenir during the regional elections of 2009, said that in this kind of situation the party always follows the advice of its local section, which he would do here too. Ecolo had promised to oppose the Foruminvest project which, it is true, is the archetype of the ecological nightmare: temple of overconsumption, concrete blockhouse, car and traffic jam vacuum cleaner, place of mercantile decivilization, urban monster, killer of small businesses and green spaces. The « green party » could hardly deny itself to the point of giving its blank check for the devastation of Verviers.

But jackets have been turned inside out. At the regional level, André Antoine (CDH) was the minister in charge and his action in favor of shopping centers did not bode well for Verviers. In June 2009 during the regional elections, the attributions change and it is ecolo who inherits the portfolio, which falls into the pocket of Mr. Henry, Minister of the Environment, Land Use and Mobility. From that moment on, Jean-Michel Javaux, the party boss, could no longer be reached. Nothing, peanuts, nada. And Mr. Henry gives the license to Foruminvest.

The feeling of betrayal is total and one remembers in Belgium these images of J.-M. Javaux being vigorously challenged during a visit to Verviers at the beginning of April 2011. He was given a bucket of water and fresh cream on his head, which made him say on the television news that he was « worried about democracy ». Orwellian. In Vesdre-Avenir we talk about this film « Tous au Larzac » which reminds us of the struggle against the implantation of a military camp on the Cevennes plateau and which sounds like an almost perfect echo to the struggle led in Verviers for 7 years now. with one difference: Mitterand had given his word that if he was elected, the military camp project would be abandoned. And he kept his word. What the ecologists did not do.

Since then, ecolo seems to be working for Foruminvest. Minister Henry is now openly collaborating with the promoter. First, by presenting a « new » project revised by his own cabinet. Then by preparing to grant all the derogations intended to counteract an appeal still pending at the Council of State. Did you say good governance?

No doubt this is the « responsibility » claimed by the parties that make a virtue of their moral impotence. Since the ecologist decided that the monster of Verviers could not be stopped — the citizens are of a different opinion — he might as well adapt it to make it « sustainable development » compatible. This formidable political will that dreams of transforming dinosaurs into swallows…


However, alternatives do exist, of course. Starting with the current situation, unchanged, which in comparison to the devastation project is a solution.  » We are in a state of war: we are attacked, we have the right to defend ourselves even without an alternative project  » we are told. And indeed, if Foruminvest succeeds in imposing its mega-mall, the multiple user-friendly scenarios that could be envisaged could only remain a dead letter. The priority is therefore to avoid. But preferable visions have a certain political interest: they allow to show other possibilities, to make them more concrete and perceptible, and at the same time to remove the impression of fatality that the promoters try to give to their devastating project.

By showing another way, the worst way can no longer be presented as inescapable and becomes more easily avoidable. Vesdre-Avenir has proposed many avenues. starting with the one elaborated by Luc Schuiten who donated an illustrated reflection to the association in the summer of 2008. We see in particular a development which mixes the very little present nature in the center of Verviers with the city whose watercourse remains the living backbone. A central square replaces the current riverside parking lot to allow direct contact with the river. The downtown commercial pole joins this space in decreasing volumes. Vesdre Avenir emphasizes how preferable this project is and how it corresponds to the needs of the current city. Verviers can develop its tourist potential on the condition that it protects its heritage and safeguards its public space, which makes it a city. The local, non-delocalizable jobs are those on which it is most realistic to envisage the perpetuation of the city whose topography and geography are so particular. Crafts, low-skilled jobs, and small businesses should be the priority focus of attention. The establishment of the Foruminvest blockhouse in Verviers would literally crush these future paths.


 » The monstrosity is short-circuiting everything that makes a city a city, » said one resident. This monstrosity projected in the heart of the city has given rise to a mobilization that is not only social or urbanistic, but more fundamentally identity-based. The people of Verviers have been affected at the same time as their city, which is their place of life. This is probably the reason why the Foruminvest project might not see the light of day: poorly conceived, poorly implemented, not concerted, not democratic, it has been the occasion of a giant outcry.

Apart from the promoters and those who could benefit from the concreting — they are few in number — nobody is really determined to let the monstrosity sabotage the Walloon water capital. There is still much to be done by responsible citizens to preserve their city in the face of the relentlessness of speculative concrete builders and the lure of gain that turns weak minds. But in Verviers a citizen’s victory is possible, it even becomes probable.

There is still an appeal pending at the Council of State, which could stop the machine. The people of Verviers expressed themselves during a public inquiry on the project this summer (it had to fall during the vacations). Will their opinions be heard this time? And in October, the communal elections. Will Mr. Desama, who is said in the region to live not in Verviers but in Dison, be reappointed? In 2014, the regional elections. We’ll see where the project stands at that point, but all indications are that it’s still in its infancy. What will the next « competent » minister say? The course of things is against the mega malls, current temples of consumption and tomorrow morning vestiges of the societies of excess. Perhaps by then, some parties will realize that they have an interest in defending the people and their places. But it is useless to leave it in the hands of the elected representatives, as this patient and remarkable action has brilliantly illustrated, in Verviers where the citizen resistance is as strong as a flower.


You want to support the resistance of Verviers? You can make a donation to the association Vesdre-Avenir (bank account 068–2439579- 56) or offer your help by contacting it via its website www.vesdre-avenir.be




ForumInvest Group, the « Shopping Centre and City Centre Investment and Development Group », was founded in the Netherlands in 1987 and has been present in Belgium since 1999. Its slogan: « the winning city ». The group also has its own television channel, ForumTV, which was launched in 2007 and broadcasts its advertising programs — produced in its Belgian studios at Sovifo — in the group’s shopping centers. ForumInvest is managed by Michel Riaskoff.

In Belgium, ForumInvest realized the shopping centers « Les Grands Prés » in Mons (inaugurated in 2003) and « K in Kortrijk » in Kortrijk (inaugurated in 2010), based on a commercial agreement between Mr. Riaskoff and P. Huon and maybe even others


In August 2010, Patric Huon, then director of ForumInvest in Belgium, creates City Mall Development « a Belgian group with an international vocation specialized in commercial real estate » which takes over the Belgian and Luxembourg activities of ForumInvest. The vocation of City Mall: « to revitalize cities through trade ».

City Mall Development is managed by Patric HUON and is 75% owned by Immobilière HUON (created in 1992) and 25% by Banimmo, a listed real estate company (the link is made publicly through the person of Amaury de Crombrugghe, director of City Mall Development and also a member of the Management Committee of Banimmo)

« As a reminder, Banimmo, a repositioning and redevelopment property company, acquires buildings with high redevelopment potential to resell them after conversion », says www.cercle-finance.com


ForumInvest invests in urban renewal at the same time as it develops its shopping centers in city centers (Namur, Verviers) or their surroundings (Mons). He then sells them to real estate funds.

« Les Grands Prés » was sold to the German fund Deutsche Immobilien Fonds AG (DIFA, which has since become « Union Investment Real Estate ») in September 2003, 4 months after its inauguration, with a capital gain for ForumInvest estimated at 10 million euros out of a sale price of about 100 million. ForumInvest, which remains the manager of the center, has contracted with the same group to finance the expansion and development of the « big meadows » to the tune of 69.7 million euros.

ForumInvest concluded a purchase agreement for the K in Kortrijk shopping center with the same German real estate fund « Union Investment Real Estate » on December 10, 2009, i.e. even before its opening…


Michel Riaskoff remains close, he is a minority shareholder in City Mall Development and an advisor for the development of the « Les Grands Prés » center, which will soon be joined by an Ikea store. He is about to sell all the shares of Forum Invest to David Ermia (CEO of Forum TV) as the company is about to invest in the development of a mega mall in São Paolo, Brazil.

The projects « Au fil de l’eau » in Verviers, « Côté verre » in Namur and the « Palais des Expositions » in Charleroi are also in the portfolio of CityMall. The latter is the least advanced project, but it is expected to be the largest (58,000 m², 4,400 parking spaces). Patrick Huon declares that he wants to impose « the reference shopping of Wallonia, as Wijnegem is for Flanders » (La Libre, 04/09/2010). City Mall states on its website that « [Le projet] is currently evolving according to the strategic urban planning choices of the municipal authorities. » Since the Carolo affairs, the situation seemed to be blocked. This is remarkably timely: the municipal elections are approaching and a certain Paul Magnette is expected to take up the post of mayor. To be continued, then.

Notes et références
  1. « Etat des lieux socio-économique de la région de Verviers — Edition 2011 », www.leforem.be
  2. http://www.luttepauvrete.be/chiffres_campagne.htm
  3. « La situation reste préoccupante et s’aggrave même pour les quartiers abritant de forte concentration d’étrangers issus de pays pauvres, avec des problèmes aigus de qualification et d’emploi et l’émergence de phénomènes de ghettoïsation. », « Analyse dynamique des quartiers en difficulté dans les régions urbaines belges » in Atlas des quartiers en difficulté, Vandermotten Christian, Kesteloot Christian, Ippersiel Bertrand e.a. 2007, p. 43. http://mi-is.be/sites/default/files/doc/atlasfr_0.pdf-
  4. Plus tôt pour les préparatifs à Verviers, dès 2002 avec Messieurs Desama et Van Cauwenberghe, Messieurs Huon et Riaskoff notamment pour Foruminvest si l’on en croit une enquête réalisée par l’ex-journaliste Philippe Engels — Le Vif/L’Express, 23 mars 2007. Mais les débuts belges de Foruminvest sont encore antérieurs puisque le premier mégacentre commercial a été ouvert en 2003 à Mons, commune de monsieur E. Di Rupo [Voir plus haut].
  5. Huit entreprises sur 10 de la région vérviétoise emploient moins de 10 personnes. « Etat des lieux socio-économique de la région de Verviers — Edition 2011 », www.leforem.be
  6. http://www.vesdre-avenir.be Le site de l’association regorge d’informations et retrace 7 ans de luttes. Cet article s’en inspire, ainsi que de la rencontre de certains protagonistes de l’association.
  7. « Oufti » vient du wallon, est une contraction de « ouf ti» (« ouf toi » en français), interjection de la région liégeoise exprimant l’étonnement, la surprise, et parfois la sidération.
  8. Le Jour, 4 juillet 2007
  9. Pour ce qui concerne le logement. En vertu de l’article 172 du CWATUPE – le Code wallon de l´Aménagement du territoire, de l´Urbanisme, du Patrimoine et de l´Energie.

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