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Quantifying the effects of public action on the unemployed: disputes between experts and the rethinking of labour market policies in France (1980-2000)

Quantifying the effects of public action on the unemployed: disputes between experts and the rethinking of labour market policies in France (1980-2000)

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E. Penissat

of public assistance with a control sample (Gaudillère 2006), had been used for several

decades in the USA and in a number of European countries. However, they were late

appearing in France (Labrousse 2010), not coming into use until the second half of the 2000s

in order to evaluate the introduction of the French income support benefit known as the

revenu de solidarité active (RSA) (Gomel and Serverin 2009) and in order to evaluate the

performance of the Agence nationale pour l’emploi (the French national employment agency,

or ANPE) compared to private agencies in the competition to find placements for job seekers.

The speeches given by advocates of these methods described them as an obvious advance,

one that marked the introduction in France of evidence-based policy (Duflo and Banerjee

2011). Nevertheless, questions continue to be asked about the ‘reliability’ and ‘robustness’ of

these methods (Perez 2000; Allègre 2008, L’Horty and Petit 2010). Their scientific nature and

value, far from being established facts, are the object of disputes between various actors.

While experimental methods were adopted late in France, experts in the ministries in charge

of these policies, particularly at the Ministry of Labour, had been developing original survey

methods since the 1980s. Thus reviewing the political and bureaucratic issues at stake in these

surveys is a way of understanding how and by whom they were imported and diffused, and

for what purposes. The use of random surveys in the second half of the 2000s cannot be

reduced to a mere technical change or a process of scientific rationalisation applied to the

evaluation of public policies. Rather, the introduction of such methods led to a real change in

the conception and role of evaluation by removing it from the purview of the social sciences

and relocating it firmly within the sphere of the so-called ‘hard’ sciences. This process was

part of the battles between groups of experts and researchers and of the changes in state

intervention in labour market policy, whose role henceforth was to be less to correct

inequalities in the labour market than to help to make it function more flexibly.

1. When the social sciences seized control of labour market policy evaluation

1.1. Measuring the effects of labour market policies: the innovation of sample surveys

Throughout the 1970s and until the mid-1980s, assessments of labour market policies

were dependent on management and administrative practices and knowledge. They were

based on data put together by government departments (e.g. the flows of state-subsidised

contracts) and on so-called ‘operational’ surveys that sought to describe the conditions under

which policies were implemented. It was not until the second half of the 1980s that the

Ministry of Labour’s department of studies and statistics (SES), which in 1993 became the

Directorate of Research, Studies and Statistics (Direction de l’animation de la recherche, des

études et des statistiques/DARES), began to conduct surveys using samples of unemployed

individuals in state-subsidised jobs, on the one hand, and, on the other, samples of firms

making use of such jobs. Compared with the administrative data that had been available until

then, these sample surveys increased the volume of information that could be used by

government departments in order to measure the various effects of labour market policies. For

example, the surveys of company directors were to be used to measure the deadweight effects

(when an unemployed individual is hired on a state-subsidised contract when a worker would

have been hired in any event) or substitution effects (when a state-subsidised worker is hired

7   Quantifying the effects of public action on the unemployed ...


rather than one on a standard contract) produced by these policies. Similarly, a major

innovation involved the introduction of panel surveys carried out using representative samples

of unemployed people and/or beneficiaries of labour market policies. Using this method, it

became possible to objectify several types of effects that could be observed along the labour

market trajectories of the unemployed: return to short or long-term employment, as well as

the quality of any job found, access to training and so on. Statistical analysis of the panel data

gave rise to typologies of labour market trajectories and to descriptions of these trajectories

based on the social characteristics of the unemployed individuals surveyed. The officials

responsible for the surveys usually used multiple correspondence analyses and classifications

in order to draw up these typologies. The social characteristics of beneficiaries of labour

market policies were taken into account in order to ascertain whether the subsidies were

actually being allocated to the ‘target’ populations – young people with few qualifications, the

long-term unemployed etc. – and to measure the counter-selective effect or, to put it another

way, their ability to invert the employment queue by favouring the most disadvantaged. Thus

these surveys were used to promote a socio-economic approach, since they were concerned

with the principles animating the actors’ trajectories and took account of the various resources

(educational, social, etc.) available to them and of the labour market segments in which they

had to find employment.

These innovations were an attempt to respond to political and administrative injunctions

concerning labour market policy evaluation. Statisticians and experts at DARES did not

appropriate them uncritically or without seeking some degree of leeway for themselves.

Firstly, they were critical of what they regarded as the overreliance among politicians and

civil servants on the return-to-work rate as the sole indicator for measuring the success of

labour market policies (DARES 1996: 303 and 317). They insisted on the need to vary the

evaluation criteria by taking account of indicators of earnings levels, job quality and social

integration. They were also cautious about and, in some cases, doubtful of the feasibility and

even the value of a ceteris paribus measure of the effects of public action (Gélot and Simonin

1996; Aucouturier, 1994). In panel surveys, after all, the beneficiaries of labour market

policies are compared with unemployed individuals who have not received assistance in order

to isolate the effects of state assistance, on the assumption of ‘all other things being equal’.

This reluctance to adopt experimental methods was linked to the technical challenges they

pose and the fact that, because of their academic and professional backgrounds, some of the

officials in charge of the surveys lacked proficiency in econometrics (cf. below). They also

advanced a moral and political argument, namely that a conscious decision not to help all the

unemployed individuals potentially eligible for assistance would contravene the republican

principle of equality (Gélot and Simonin, 1996). Finally, some of them took the view that the

legitimacy of state intervention in the labour market was not an issue, since the state is not an

exogenous variable but rather one actor among others in the labour market (Aucouturier,


This attitude to experimental methods went more or less unchallenged in both

administrative and academic circles. Among university economists, the development of the

new neoclassical microeconomics of labour markets was in its early stages and was still based

mainly on theoretical approaches (Perrot 1992). The first econometric studies using empirical


E. Penissat

data did not become available until the early 1990s. Moreover, unlike in the USA, labour

economics based on the institutionalist paradigm still had a structural role in academic circles

(Gazier 1992). Among the economists at INSEE, the French national statistical service,

macroeconomics remained dominant and the emphasis was on analysis of economic and

budgetary policies, with labour market policy still a marginal concern.

1.2. Institutionalization of evaluation of public policies and opposition to the neo-liberal

approach of the French Ministry of Finance

On their introduction, these statistical surveys became a resource in the bureaucratic

struggles of the late 1980s and early 1990s. For government research analysts, they were a

means of responding to injunctions from government and the ministries of state that were

seeking to institutionalise public policy evaluation as part of a broader programme for

‘modernising’ the state (Spenlehauer 1998). Analysts at DARES championed an academic

approach to evaluation and regularly opposed the ‘operational’ departments of ANPE, the

French national employment agency, and the Ministry of Labour, which were in the habit of

using the administrative evaluation methods mentioned previously. Thus the new survey

methods enabled these research analysts to legitimise and build up their institutional position

within the bureaucratic space.

These surveys were to be used above all by senior civil servants in the Ministry of

Labour to oppose the neoliberal policies advocated by the Ministry of Finance. As

unemployment in France increased, reaching 3 million in 1993, labour market policies

became the object of much debate within government and the civil service. Keynesian

demand-side policies had been discredited since 1983. The economists in the Ministry of

Finance, who had been converted to neoliberalism (Jobert and Théret 1994), were advocating

measures designed to combat labour market rigidities by making the regulations on dismissal

protection more flexible and reducing labour costs for unskilled jobs. In political terms, their

advice was reflected in a series of measures to reduce social security contributions that were

introduced in 1993, when a right-wing government was in power. For their part, senior civil

servants in the Ministry of Labour advocated labour market policies intended to support the

most disadvantaged groups among the unemployed in order to compensate for the labour

market’s selective effects (inequalities of access to employment) and ensure that social

measures were put in place for these groups. They embodied the ‘left hand’ of the state

(Bourdieu, 1998), which took the view that economic objectives should be linked to measures

to improve social justice and ensure that individual well-being was taken into account in

developing policies (Mathiot 2001).

As these institutional struggles raged, senior civil servants in both ministries drew on

statistical and economic appraisals in order to give legitimacy to their respective ‘doctrines’.

The economists in the Ministry of Finance’s forecasting department encouraged the

development of micro-econometric studies and used them to criticise the measures introduced

by the Ministry of Labour, particularly subsidised jobs. They noted, in particular, that the

‘net’ effects of these policies on the back-to-work rate in the market sector were in fact weak

(Tresmontant and Ermakoff 1990). Conversely, drawing on their own surveys, civil servants

in the Ministry of Labour showed that, despite everything, these measures were succeeding in

7   Quantifying the effects of public action on the unemployed ...


reducing unemployment – which was an important argument in a context in which this

problem was highly politicised – and also preventing unemployed individuals with few

qualifications who were no longer able to find ‘normal’ jobs from becoming socially excluded

(DARES 1996). The data from these surveys were also used to support the Ministry’s

proposals on access for the unemployed to training or less precarious subsidised jobs. Among

most of the senior officials and analysts at DARES, this defence of the social management of

unemployment went hand in hand with the promotion both of Keynesian macroeconomic

policies and the sharing out of working time (DARES 1996 : 256).

1.3. Statisticians and experts defending heterodox knowledge

These surveys were after all designed by experts who, by virtue of their career

trajectories and position within their academic field, championed a certain view of statistical

surveys and labour market policies. They were sociologists or economists who subscribed to

non-mainstream schools in economics (Lebaron 2000), notably Keynesian, Marxist or

institutionalist approaches. They collaborated frequently with their counterparts in the

Observatoire franỗais des conjonctures ộconomiques (French Economic Observatory, or

OFCE), a Keynesian economic forecasting institute, and in the Séminaire d’Economie du

Travail (a CNRS research centre at the University of Paris 1), a bastion of institutionalist

economists. There were also INSEE statisticians working at DARES who had been trained in

the sociological approaches in the 1970s, when Pierre Bourdieu and his team were teaching

that discipline there, and who had cut their professional teeth in the INSEE departments

responsible for gathering social statistics. Despite differences in their career trajectories, these

experts belonged to the same groups within their respective academic and administrative

spheres and had contributed to the process, which had begun in the 1970s, of making the

social sciences part of the body of knowledge on which the state could draw (Bezès et al.

2005). They took a position against neoliberal economic policies. Moreover, while they

championed a strongly empirical approach to evaluation and were for the most part skilled in

the use of descriptive statistics, they were not econometricians.

This background, and in particular the fact that the methods used in labour market

policy evaluation had been developed by experts in the social sciences, explains France’s

relative distinctiveness in this regard. In the United States, for example, experimental surveys

and, more broadly, microeconometric methods of policy evaluation had predominated since

the 1960s and in the UK and the Nordic countries since the 1970s/80s (Fougère 2000). Thus

the introduction of these statistical surveys as a means of evaluating state action involved a

series of problematisations and choices that reflected certain notions of what state action

should be. The political issues at stake in policy evaluations were all the more significant

since they were part of the broader institutional struggles whose ultimate goal was to define

the forms that state intervention should take (Bourdieu and Christin 1990).

2. The imposition of econometrics and neoliberalism in the first decade of the 21st



E. Penissat

2.1.Experimental methods to measure the ‘pure’ effect of public action on the back-towork rate

In the first decade of the 21st century, the evaluations carried out by DARES underwent

some significant changes. The types of survey used became less diverse and the surveys that

were carried out were designed to isolate the net effects of public action and to measure the

‘back-to-work’ rate, an indicator that had been used but also criticised in DARES studies

carried out in the 1990s. The methodological effort was focused principally on the techniques

used to select a control sample that could be used to analyse the effects of the measures

ceteris paribus (Even 2002). Experimental methods were then imported and developed under

the umbrella of a partnership between DARES, ANPE, INSEE’s Centre for Research in

Economics and Statistics (Centre de recherche en économie et statistique/CREST) and the

Paris School of Economics (l’École d’économie de Paris). The aim was to evaluate the effects

of the increased support for unemployed people put in place in 2007 by ANPE and the private

placement companies funded by the National Interprofessional Union for Employment in

Industry and Commerce (Union nationale interprofessionnelle pour l’emploi dans l’industrie

et le commerce/UNEDIC) (DARES et al. 2009 ; Behagel, Crépon and Gurgand 2012).

The experimental method (i.e. random or randomised evaluation) involves the random

selection of a group of users who will receive aid and support in order to compare their

trajectories with those of users not receiving the aid and support provided to the other group.

Thus the survey method is still based on the monitoring of a panel of unemployed individuals,

but the link between quantification and access to support is reversed. The aim is no longer to

survey unemployed people, who have already received aid and support, i.e. to adapt the

methodology to the population surveyed, but rather to adapt the allocation of the population to

the survey protocol. This type of survey is supposed to ensure the best possible degree of

comparability between the population that receives support and the control population, since

the random allocation neutralises selection biases among the individuals surveyed (what

econometricians call ‘unobserved heterogeneity’), thereby enabling analysts to evaluate,

ceteris paribus, the effect of the measures taken by the ANPE and the private placement

agencies on the back-to-work rate. The technical and administrative legitimacy accorded to

this method was put before the public at several events, notably at an international conference

entitled ‘Expérimentations pour les politiques publiques de l’emploi et de la formation

professionnelle’/The Use of Experimental Methods in the Evaluation of Public Employment

and Vocational Training Policies’, organised by DARES in May 2008. The main foreign

economists internationally recognised as promoters of these methods, such as Abhijit

Banerjee, professor at MIT, and Esther Duflo, holder of the chair in ‘knowledge against

poverty’ at the Collège de France, were invited to take part. Alongside them were the French

economists who had imported their work: Marc Gurgand, CNRS research director, Franỗois

Bourguignon, director of studies at the EHESS (Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales),

both members of the Paris School of Economics, Denis Fougère, CNRS research director, and

Bruno Crépon, a senior civil servant at INSEE, both members of CREST (the INSEE research

institute), etc.

It might be thought that this use of randomised evaluation essentially constitutes a

development of the survey methods put in place at the end of the 1980s. This is not the case.

7   Quantifying the effects of public action on the unemployed ...


This technical change is in fact linked to changes in the discipline of economics and in

government thinking on labour market policy.

2.2.The import of experimental surveys into France by a new generation of economists

In order to understand the situation at the turn of the century, it is necessary to consider

the changes taking place contemporaneously in the discipline of economics. Focusing the

investigations on the ceteris paribus effect of public measures was, after all, a way of

adapting the evaluation methods to the changes that had been taking place in economics since

the second half of the 1990s, in which the various groups in the dominant school were seeking

to bring economics closer to the experimental sciences by making the discipline an empirical

science capable of identifying causal relationships (Lordon 1997). Distancing themselves

from the ‘Washington consensus’ (Dezalay and Garth 1998) and a highly theoretical approach

to economics, some of the new generation of economists were adopting a highly pragmatic

approach. They did not proclaim themselves followers of the neoclassical school, while at the

same time retaining the individual rational actor paradigm, and also distanced themselves

from the systematic discrediting of the state. They emphasised empiricism and the need to

respond to questions about the efficiency of state action (Labrousse 2010). This was reflected

in the exponential use of microeconomic data and econometric panel techniques, specifically

in the area of labour economics (Hsiao 2006). This shift in the discipline was also a factor in

the changes that were taking place in the hierarchies within economics at the international

level. Empirical studies, which had long been considered less worthy than theoretical studies,

were now regarded particularly highly (Han Kim et al. 2006). Since the canons of French

economics were derived largely from those in the English-speaking countries (Lebaron 2000:

131-132), these changes in the discipline found an echo in the upper echelons of French

economics. It was the French labour economists closest to these dominant groups who

imported these methods in the early 2000s. Thus the effort expended on developing these

methods cannot be explained solely by changes in the demand from politicians for evaluation,

but was also linked to specific issues within the academic discipline.

In the 1980s, panel surveys were carried out by research analysts trained in social

sciences. In the 2000s, those developing these methods had different profiles. Members of the

most prestigious research centres (INSEE research centres, Paris School of Economics), these

economists had several characteristics in common: they had built up their positions in the

academic sphere rather than in the administration and, above all, were oriented more to

mathematics than to the social sciences, both in their training and in their approach to

economics. Moreover, although they defined themselves primarily by the primacy they gave

to empiricism and to econometric methods, they championed more liberal labour market

policies, in which the unemployed were regarded above all as homines economici responding

to economic incentives and no longer as individuals belonging to social groups whose

situation was the result of labour market dysfunctions. After all, the imposition of

econometrics and randomised evaluation went hand in hand with a shift in the dominant

theories in labour economics: these economists highlighted the mismatch between the skills

supplied and those demanded in the labour market, on the one hand, and, on the other, the

inadequacy of earnings from work (L’Horty 2006). Unemployment was explained principally


E. Penissat

by the behaviour of unemployed individuals rather than by the macroeconomic context or

agents’ socio-demographic characteristics.

From the beginning of the 21st century onwards, these economists embarked on the task

of critiquing the DARES surveys in order better to legitimise the experimental methods that

had been used for a long time in the English-speaking and Nordic countries. To that end, they

began by emphasising the fact that ‘when it comes to unemployment, nothing has been

seriously tried because nothing has been seriously evaluated’ (Cahuc and Zylberberg 2005:

13), thereby indicating that the DARES surveys were incapable of measuring the ‘net effects’

of public action. In contrast, they emphasised France’s isolation as the only developed

country not to use experimental surveys, which were presented as the gold standard for

evaluation. They made extensive efforts to diffuse and popularise these approaches within

academia and, above all, within the civil service, through ministry journals (Fougère 2000;

Brodaty et al. 2007) and government reports (Pisani-Ferry 2000). This discourse on the

performance of public action and comparison with other countries gained all the more traction

since it very much chimed with more general ideas around the need for reform and for the

state to demonstrate its effectiveness (Bezès 2009; Bruno and Didier 2012). Finally, they were

able to take advantage of their academic qualifications, unlike the former DARES research

analysts, and of the symbolic capital of the economists advocating these methods, such as

Esther Duflo and James Heckman, professor of econometrics at the University of Chicago and

Nobel Prize laureate in economics in the year 2000. These different registers of legitimation

enabled them to discredit the studies carried out by the DARES experts and hence to

marginalise some of them within their own directorate. They were all the more successful

since they were able to find intermediaries within the civil service.

The downgrading of heterodox approaches in both academia and the civil service,

notably at the Paris Graduate School for Economics, Statistics and Finance (l’École nationale

de la statistique et de l’administration économique/ENSAE) in the 1990s (Lebaron 2000),

was reflected in a depletion of the breeding ground for the economists and sociologists who

had carried out the earlier surveys and led to the recruitment of a generation of young

econometricians. Moreover, from the early 2000s onwards, the recruitment channels for

senior posts within government agencies such as DARES were restructured in favour of

mainstream economists from the Ministry of Economics and Finance (Penissat 2009). The

INSEE officials who arrived at DARES in the 2000s brought about a change in the networks

of researchers with whom DARES collaborated. They built up alliances with econometricians

from INSEE and EEP, who had hitherto played little part in the networks of researchers

funded by DARES. The arrival of these new senior officials created a favourable environment

for the adoption of new survey methods and new economic paradigms.

2.3.Rethinking anti-unemployment policies and the uses of econometric evaluations

The political and institutional configuration at the turn of the century made this

endeavour possible. Thus the labour economists at the Paris School of Economics (Marc

Gurgand, Luc Behagel, Pierre Cahuc, etc.) and INSEE (Bruno Crépon, Roland Rathelot,

Thomas Le Barbanchon, etc.) placed their expertise at the service of institutions enmeshed in

highly competitive configurations or positioned as outsiders within the administrative

7   Quantifying the effects of public action on the unemployed ...


bureaucracy. This was the case when the RSA was introduced. The High Commission on

Active Solidarity against Poverty, headed by Martin Hirsch36, which was a subordinate and

peripheral organisation compared with the Ministries of Health or Labour, was able to take

advantage of the experimentation and its results to extend the RSA to the whole of France

(Gomel and Serverin 2009). A similar process occurred in the case of the evaluation of the

increased support programme for job seekers. The randomised surveys were put to use when

competition was introduced between the ANPE and private placement agencies. The

offensive launched in the 2000s by employers within UNEDIC, the organisation managed by

the social partners responsible for the administration of unemployment benefit, and the

development of a policy combining increased support for the unemployed and stricter

monitoring of their job seeking put the ANPE under pressure (Barbier 2007). In particular, the

management of UNEDIC redefined its relationship with the ANPE by imposing

contractualisation, with future budgets being granted on the basis of the ANPE’S performance

in increasing the ‘back-to-work’ rate. In 2005, this contractualisation principle was further

reinforced by the UNEDIC management’s decision to experiment with competition between

the ANPE and private placement agencies in specific segments of the labour market. In the

course of this experiment, the ANPE and UNEDIC formed alliances with economists from

CREST and the EEP, who were seeking funding and opportunities to introduce randomisation

techniques. As a result, the reform launched in 2007, which involved partial privatisation of

placement services for job seekers, acquired academic legitimacy, with the experimental

surveys being presented as an ‘objective’, impartial means of deciding between the private

and public organisations (Cahuc and Kramarz 2004 : 48).

As these survey techniques were diffused, they were used to support new ways of

conceptualising and planning labour market policies. After the episode of the 35-hour week,

which was introduced between 1998 and 200237, a series of neoliberal prescriptions were put

forward by certain elected politicians, senior civil servants and employers’ representatives.

The activation principle became established as the dominant doctrine underlying social

expenditure. The debate shifted from the problem of the distribution of work and inequalities

of access to employment towards the question of labour market fluidity, approached from a

neoliberal perspective. The emphasis was less on providing targeted assistance for the most

disadvantaged among the unemployed than on putting in place positive (financial rewards for

promoting employment) and negative (stricter monitoring of job seeking) incentives to

encourage the unemployed back into work. As the institution responsible for matching supply

and demand in the labour market, the ANPE’s role and the actions it took emerged as one of

the issues at stake in the debate on public action and the evaluation thereof (Pisany-Ferri


The choice of questions and variables to be used for evaluation was linked less to the

survey tools themselves than to these experts’ predispositions and the ways in which they

conceived the labour market and state action. Since the beginning of the 21st century, they


On Martin Hirsch’s specific role in the importation of these methods, cf. Elisa Chelle, 2012.

Between 1997 and 2002, the socialist Jospin government introduced a major reform, encouraged in part by

some experts at DARES, with the aim of combating unemployment: it involved reducing the statutory weekly

working time from 39 to 35 hours.



E. Penissat

had, after all, been promoting so-called ‘activation’ policies, which sought to strengthen the

monitoring of job seeking behaviour and to encourage labour market mobility. Drawing their

inspiration from the US workfare model, these policies involving the devolvement of

responsibility to the individual job seeker. For advocates of these reforms, the state’s function

was to ensure fluidity of adjustment between supply and demand in the labour market rather

than to remedy inequalities or alter the way the labour market functions.


The introduction of randomisation methods was, on the one hand, part of a drive to

evaluate public action by objectifying its effect, all others things being equal, and, on the

other hand, to focus on increasing the ‘back-to-work’ rate, regardless of the form of

employment found. Although it was an innovation in France, there was a certain degree of

continuity between this use of experimental surveys and the methods developed from the end

of the 1980s onwards. Thus it was more the profiles of the actors involved and the uses to

which these surveys were put that changed. This observation brings us back to our initial

assertion, namely that the symbolic power of statistics and their uses in public action are

closely connected with the social predispositions of the actors who produce them and the

power relationships specific to their sphere of operations.

The change observed in the evaluation of labour market policies reflects changes in the

academic discipline, with a generation of heterodox sociologists and economists being

downgraded in status and influence in favour of econometricians. This has led to the

marginalisation of the social sciences and the imposition of mathematical formalisation and

methods based on the medical experimentation model. It also reflects shifts in the power

relationships within the bureaucratic space – the diffusion of neoliberal prescriptions, changes

in the profiles of senior officials in the Ministry of Labour and the establishment of

competition between public employment service institutions and private providers. In other

words, the change in statistical tools and, above all, the analytical uses to which they are put

has less to do with technical ‘progress’ than the struggles between various fractions within the

bureaucratic and academic elites and their rival interests and bodies of knowledge. Several

research studies have highlighted the growing influence of consultancy companies (Power,

1999) to the detriment of academic researchers; here, however, the reverse model can be

observed: it is a grouping within the economics discipline that has sought to bring about

change in the upper echelons of the state by promoting new policy prescriptions and new

survey and evaluation methods. Thus these experimental methods are as much a change in the

scientific and statistical techniques used by the ministries of state as a reconfiguration of the

technologies of government.

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