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In search of Europe: France

The EU's eastward enlargement seems to have few fans in France, where fears about competition for jobs and declining French influence in Europe are widespread, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports.

JONNY DYMOND
BBC correspondent Jonny Dymond

I'm Jonny Dymond and I've said goodbye to the BBC Brussels bureau for the next few weeks. I'll be taking the temperature in nine EU member states before the European Parliament elections on 4-7 June. I'm going to ask voters what they think of the EU and what their priorities are. Join me on the trip!

There is always something of a paradox about France and the EU.

If you listen to French leaders - local, regional or national - the EU is France's destiny.

After all, was it not a French creation? Does the European flag not flutter from tens of thousands of town halls across the land?

And was not the French presidency of the Union last year a triumph that reminded lesser countries (all 26 of them) just how these things should be done?

Economic unease on the streets of Nancy

But if you talk to French citizens - of all classes and ages - there are doubts, hesitations, questions about the EU that reflect French insecurity about both the direction of the EU and France's place within it.

There is nothing like the angry scepticism you find in Britain.

But there is genuine mystification about how what was once a cosy, pretty much French-led club is now a sprawling organisation with 27 members, where France has to work hard to get herself heard.

Taking to the streets

It is the last big round of enlargements that causes most consternation.

In Nancy, in eastern France, thousands of people from the region took to the streets on May Day to protest about rising unemployment, the government's economic policies and the protesters' perennial bete noire - education reforms.

Guy Pernin
Guy Pernin says the EU allows jobs to move to eastern Europe

In the demonstration, under a banner of the communist-influenced trade union CGT, marched Guy Pernin.

He is a CGT official from a recently-closed tyre factory, about half an hour's drive from town.

Mr Pernin is convinced that the machinery from the factory is being sent to Poland to be used by cheaper Polish workers.

Michelin, the factory's owner, refused to comment on the machinery's final destination.

"All the French industrial groups are going to eastern Europe these days," says Mr Pernin.

"Michelin told us we were obsolete, that we were no longer worth anything. Michelin is using systems put in place at the European level, to take our machines and continue their production."

Polish plumber's shadow

Some politicians in France say that the furore over the "Polish plumber" - a shorthand for eastern European workers undercutting French counterparts' pay and social protection - has died down.

But in Nancy, workers, students and pensioners nearly all mention the need to avoid what they call "social dumping".

And those sceptical sentiments do not just come from the usual suspects on the left.

Camembert stall
Normandy wants to remain distinctive in the enlarged EU

On the other side of the country, in the Normandy town of Cambremer, there is a celebration of all the good things the region produces.

Up and down the winding streets of the town stalls are heavy with cheese, calvados, more cheese, cider, sausage and more cheese.

At one rare non-cheese stand Didier Bedu stands behind a wall of calvados bottles.

How, I ask him, does France feel towards the EU?

"Maybe more enthusiastic than the British," he laughs, "but more and more sceptical.

"They [the EU] want to manage and control everything, in all the small details of life, and this is not the role of the EU. This is the role of local government."

And amongst those sipping and nibbling at the stalls, there is a similar downbeat mood.

Nearly everyone I speak to says they will vote in the upcoming elections.

Producers in Cambremer have benefitted from the EU

But nearly everyone complains about the impact of expansion to the East.

"Our son works for an international company," said Simone, a 72-year-old pensioner. "And he asked for a raise. His boss told him: 'Two Poles can work for your pay'."

Her husband, standing next to her, chips in: "France is getting poorer because of the EU".

Andre, a 26-year-old financial adviser, says he is very much in favour of building a political Europe but that "we must have the same rules everywhere".

And he adds: "The building of Europe would allow us to protect our market from emerging economies."

All of this is a long way from the kind of liberal free market rhetoric you hear in Brussels.

EU cheese-fest

It seems rude not to visit at least one of the many cheese stands at the festival.

I head for the creamy blue of a Roquefort stall, run by a big grinning bear of a man, Xavier Thuret, whose passion for mouth-watering cheese appears to be matched only by his love of European integration.

Xavier Thuret
Xavier Thuret sees the diversity of the EU as a good thing

"The European Union," he says, smiling, "is a big, big, big fromage, with English cheese, Italian cheese, French cheese, Spanish cheese, a lot of different sorts of cheese."

And Romanian cheese, I ask?

He is stumped, and admits to not having tried such a delicacy. Polish cheese did not get a mention either.

You can put growing French doubts down to a national insecurity, to concern about having to share the EU stage with so many others, or to economic worries that may yet resolve themselves - as fears over competition with Spain and Portugal did in the 1980s.

But doubts there are, and they will continue to grow.

And who knows, just as in the referendum four years ago - when the French rejected the EU constitution - come the June elections they may surprise their leaders once again.

Jonny Dymond's route across Europe
4 May - France
8 May - Ireland
12 May - UK
16 May - Sweden
21 May - Latvia
25 May - Poland
29 May - Austria
2 June - Italy
5 June - Germany


Jonny's response to your comments so far:

There seem to be several intertwined arguments below. There's the point made by Marek and others about the intentions behind the last big enlargement and the way in which some people and politicians in "old" Europe now seem to resent the impact of enlargement. There's the longstanding question which K Smith and others raise of what the EU is for and how it should be constituted. Finally there is the vexed question of whether there is any decent cheese east of the Oder and where I am going.

We're never going to find agreement about the intentions behind enlargement, but it is worth bearing in mind that many of the same arguments about job losses and what is now known as "social dumping" were made about Spain and Portugal when they joined. Notwithstanding Spain's current economic difficulties, that enlargement is generally judged a triumph.

I find it difficult to imagine a "European" Union without countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Once the Wall came down, how could they not be admitted? When people refer to Poland as "eastern Europe" I sometimes do a little mental flinch - is it really so far away from the European mainstream? To me it is as central to European thought and culture as Britain. Ken in Germany says that the only benefits the West has gained is a massive influx of unemployed labour. Others would point to new markets, new workers, new ideas about how to do things.

And does anyone think that countries that spent four decades being intellectually and economically looted by communism would have emerged into free market democracies so easily had the EU not been there, encouraging them every step of the way? These are early, painful days for an enlarged Europe; but is it not worth keeping our eyes on the prize? (Sorry I know I sound like a mad Europhile here - I'm not.)

Have Billy from Edinburgh and R Huggins in France touched on something pretty important about the single market? That with barriers like language and pension differences looming so large, there just isn't the same kind of labour mobility that exists in the US? Is this insuperable? And the pensions point leads into the question of just how powerful the Union should be. Kim in London and Paris wants a Federation of States - but don't you need a stronger centre if you are going to effectively police the single market and encourage the kind of harmonisation (of, for example, pensions) that can make it work well?

To those like K Smith who feel cheated that the EU has evolved into a political Union - it was always going to. And in the 1972 White Paper that led to the British Parliament acceding to the then EEC the political nature of the organisation the UK was about to join was explicitly recognised.

Finally, the great cheese and itinerary question: I look forward to eating oscipek , however it is spelt, I am sorry to miss beautiful Prague, but there is a limit to my family's patience at my absence. And I am doing my best to avoid too many capitals and make sure that I do gathering outside them even if I broadcast from them. For the record I'm broadcasting from Nuremberg, not Berlin, and Verona, not Rome, and the map should be changed pretty soon. I am genuinely honoured to be part of this conversation - onward to Ireland and the elections!


Here are some of your responses to Jonny's feature:

On Sunday I will drive to our holiday home in the Eifel region of Germany. I will pass through France and Belgium on the way and occasionally think 60 odd years ago this was all a battlefield. I haven't been for six weeks and I need a European fix. I am an enthusiastic European. We are are all so different yet we are all basically the same. When I have had discussions about life with American relatives you begin to realise just how differently they think compared to Europeans. I think our countries are older and wiser, so we should celebrate our Europeanness, not condemn it.
David, Camberley, UK

It's a thorny subject I know, but where exactly does "Europe" end and the rest of the world begin? If asked I wouldn't consider Azerbaijan, Turkey or Kazakhstan as 'Europe', but would accept Georgia and Armenia. Why? Because contrary to PC politicians I believe Europe to be a 'Christian', political and philosophical (as well as geographical) construct. Otherwise where do you draw the boundaries?
A Kelly, UK

I would like to point out one important matter, that beyond all our internal labour disputes, Europe has to stay UNITED. Scattered European countries are doomed without cooperation between themselves. A common foreign policy is our (as EU) only hope to cope with the expanding and growing powers: China, India, Russia or Brazil. The EU must form a common front. I trust that Western and Eastern Europe will reach an agreement very soon! Europe's loud and strong voice needs to be heard in the world!
Adam Borysiewicz, Radom, Poland

Hi Billy, Edinburgh: The EU is far less diverse in language than a single country named India. From Portugal to Poland the script is a,b,c,d. In India if you travel 150km you will encounter a population with another script! If India can be a functioning democracy with 850+ living languages and multiple dialects, so can the EU.
Prem, Montreal

Please never forget that the EU enlargement was lobbied for by many Western entrepreneurs and politicians, who naively hoped for a one-way access to the Eastern markets. It's a two-way street though and Eastern European zeal for personal success can only be compared to what the Western Europeans experienced in the Marshall Plan times. But back then the Western societies could not care less about the incomparable ordeals that our (the Eastern that is) parents and grandparents went through under the Soviet rule.
Marek Truskolaski, Lodz/Poland

The EU is too big, without any direction or sense and too interfering. The task of the EU should not be to govern member states, but to create a level playing field, ease constraints, upgrade standards of education, life and industries and work for the betterment of member states globally. But it does just the opposite. It has great fun pulling down Germany and its high standards in many fields. It will create a level playing field by lowering standards of countries which have toiled hard to achieve them, but not by telling states like Poland and Romania to pull their socks up. The standard of education is going down and the cross-border traffic in drugs and criminals has risen manifold. Suvrajit, Aachen/Germany

It is funny how the French people cry out for socialism, yet when their money is being taken and spread to other less fortunate areas, they get upset. Spreading the wealth is only something you'll find support for when it is someone else's money.
Adam Schluckebier, Texas/ USA

Victor from Le Havre: Smoked sheep cheese (called Oscipek) from the Polish Tatra mountains is very yummy, especially on salads. We get it in Canada.
John Sledziewski, Toronto, Canada

Originally, I am from Estonia. When I had an opportunity I moved to Canada. With no money and no connections, but facing no negative attitudes nor discriminations, simply by working and studying I made a career here, live in a house and travel the world; I wear Chinese clothes, eat Mexican fruits and have no problem with that, especially since our company sells to US and Japan. Maybe I am a pessimist, but I am pretty sure that there is no way I would succeed in your tradeophobic, commu-racist Union. Bureaucratic policies, trade union speeches or philosophical mumbling are nothing compared to simple attitudes on personal level. That is where real EU problems can be located.
Andrei, Montreal, Canada

I can understand the fears that people have over losing jobs, and economic destabilisation. However I really do not believe that any policy of isolationism would be a helpful solution, the European integration process is a natural one and, as Germany was united in 1871 from smaller states, I believe that in a world so much more globally and heavily connected, a tightly united Europe is the right way for the future. I would also like to point out that we have to be careful not to assume that the European eastward expansion is the main culprit. Much more complicated and unseen mechanisms play a role here.
David B. , Prague, Czech Republic

I needed electrical work done on my house - could I get a French electrician? All too busy - wait time 2 or 3 months. Quotes were ridiculous. My 22 yr old son has gone back to London where a stream of French youths pass through on their way into London to find jobs... Please identify the disconnect! Lower prices = increased work = jobs for young.
nigel makins, Fontainebleau, France

The EU strives to create a free labour market and these are the obvious effects. On a macro level the market is simply being efficient and cheap labour being distributed in response to demand. The benefit for the EU as a region is a more efficient distribution of its workforce, but on a micro level where real lives are affected this is cold comfort.

Any competitive advantage in cheap labour is however only temporary and the effects short term as differences in wages are relative. As an economy develops its cheap labour advantage will gradually disappear as the standard of living rises and the advantage moves elsewhere.

What Europe needs to do is to educate its workforce in order that competitive advantage not be based on cost but knowledge. Only an advantage based on expertise, technical innovation and knowledge will keep Europe's workforce competitive in a the global economy.

On another note - where's Prague on the itinerary? Lying at the heart of Europe and current chair of the EU Presidency but not on the tour? Come and do a segment in the Czech Republic - the drinks are on me!
David Currin, Prague, Czech Republic

I suspect most people would gladly take the united Europe of today with all its problems over the divided Europe of 70 years ago. Things may not be perfect, but if nothing else we have a rock-solid peace between all European nations, no barriers to intra-EU trade and a fluid, competitive labour market. We shouldn't forget that the economy of the EU is larger than that of the entire North American continent combined. When the current bust turns to boom today's high unemployment will subside, taking many of the arguments of nationalists with it.
Richard, York

The concerns of the wealthier Western European nations about expansion eastward are no different from those here in the US about cooperating with Mexico, Canada and ultimately South America. They are the cries of loss of our colonial past, when we pretty much had our own way at the expense of poorer less developed nations. It's time to grow up. As for a European Constitution which micro-manages local interests, this is an ongoing battle. Europe could take a lesson from her former colony the US, which got this right. The US Founding Fathers settled on a simple constitution with much room for interpretation, and the opportunity for local interests to challenge most federal decisions. totle, Thomasville, Ga. USA

We struggle to understand the new Europe (which we admire as much as the old one!) Thank you for helping us. Pan-European politics may be beyond our grasp, but we can relate to Mr. Thuret's big, big big fromage.
Curt Carpenter, Dallas, Texas USA

I've tried to find a French plumber to fix my studio in the French Alps. The quotes were very expensive and the men did not always turn up nor answered calls. (Perhaps they were eating cheese worth mentioning and drinking wine.) So I employed Polish plumbers who did the job cheaper and without fuss. Is this what hurts our French colleagues, who seem to have mastered the art of protesting in the streets and achieving very little? De Gaulle despaired of the difficulties in governing the country were there are hundreds different cheeses. We should extend our sympathy to President Sarkozy now.
Pawel, Krakow, Poland

To Robert in Finland: Until recently Irish plumbers made a fortune. As did many manual workers here. I know of many people around me, hairdressers, plumbers, builders etc who left school early, had a minimum of training and earned so much money that they had 2nd homes here, several properties abroad, brand new 4x4s in the driveway of their detached Mc Mansions. I certainly do not begrudge them their money, and I am so sad to see the devastating consequences of the recession here in Ireland.

We need to get some reality back into European salaries and costs. France is slow to realise that. French employment law makes it very expensive for an employer to take on a French worker, and also very hard to let them go. This lack of flexibility, or 'job for life' that the French continue to fight so hard for, is not sustainable. Andrea , Dublin, Ireland

I think the EU has done a lot for all of us, especially for us the Spaniards. Despite that, I think the last enlargement was made too quick, without realizing that the big gaps between western and eastern countries would have consequences to all of us: for western people problems of relocation of companies, problems in funding the new members that obviously need more investment than us, and for eastern citizens a rise in prices. I think it should have been done better, it's not the same having Slovenia with a GNI per capita of $21000 and Romania with $6000.
Domingo López Aguirre, Bilbao, Spain

Who pushed for immediate admission of ALL of the countries involved in the 2004 enlargement? The UK.

A quarter of a century ago it was the privately declared intention of our Foreign and Commonwealth Office to press for as much expansion of the EU as possible, in the hope that the consequent internal pressure would cause it to over-inflate and explode like a balloon. I fear that their plan may succeed.
Ray, UK

I think that the points made by both Peter Cohen, Netherlands and Robert in Finland are important. Let's face it the expansion of the EU was/is only for the benefit of business. The EU should have stayed western European and not absorbed eastern European countries. The only benefit the west has gained with the expansion is a massive influx of unemployed labour and people who have moved west to obtain social benefits that they have never contributed towards.
Ken , Germany

In Poland we are buying French perfumes, German cars, telephones from Finland, English and Italian clothes, Spanish investors are buying properties, Austrian companies are building roads, Polish tourists are skiing in Alps or spending summer in Greece... This is the first time after 60 years, when we are able to use our own creativity and work hard to produce goods that can be available elsewhere in EU. Like local cheese made in mountains called OSCYPEK. So let's enjoy that Europe is borderless and each nation can share its best of the country with others.
Robert, Warsaw, Poland

True neo-liberalism is not perfect, true! Our old Europe is economically under attack from cheap imports made in the sweat-shops of Asia, true! BUT:

Since WW2, we have not killed another 50 million Europeans in a meaningless war again, we have enjoyed a period of growth unparalleled in our history, we have Health Systems far from perfect but certainly much better than they ever have been in our whole history, we have excellent education systems, we have imperfect but overall working democracies, and we live in reasonable freedom of speech...

Sometimes we all ought to learn to see what the alternatives could have been like! Sobering it might be, but also it should enable us to envisage even better solutions for the future: in the long walk of humanity there is never a destination, just the path... and only the path!
Pierre Giraud, London UK

The EU has been ruined by self-important, often 'failed' politicians with unrealisable, grandiose ideas. They used the expansion of the EU to further their own interests and ambitions. The EU is now too big; too unwieldy to be governed as an entity: economic and political disparities make uniform decisions impossible. Meanwhile MEPs ride the 'expenses' gravy train and live the high life. I won't be voting for any MEP, sitting or otherwise, because indifference to them might be the only way to get their attention. The message, "You are irrelevant" needs to be loud and clear. It just might prick their egos (but I doubt it).
Michael Dawkes, Utrecht, The Netherlands

There is one massive problem with EU integration and no one tackles it. Namely language. The EU will never truly work until you are understood wherever you go.
Billy, Edinburgh, UK

I'm aware of the same arguments that have existed in the USA since I was a child, when factories in the northern USA shut down and moved to the southern states of the USA where labor was cheaper and unions non-existent. The north has done okay... sort of, but many of the small towns that originally hosted one or two major manufacturers, are still waiting for the next employer to come along. Because they are still waiting, former employees do not re-educate themselves with new skills, believing the high-paying jobs will come back. Likely, they won't. Threats will always be there where someone is willing to do our job cheaper. We all, no matter age or education status, must continue to upgrade our skills, go back to school, and re-adjust to new situations. It will always be that way and those who are flexible, will survive.
Jan, Fredericksburg, Va USA

Before enlarging the EU, would it not be wise to introduce some common pension rules/laws? Currently if you work for a few years in another EU country those working years do not count towards number of years worked, so pension age is therefore higher (at least in France). Private pensions from one country to another are so tied up with taxation laws/benefits that they do not travel. Yet people move from one country to another for work. Pensions do not.
R Huggins, Valbonne, France

Dear Jonny, You should come down to our little island of Malta and see for yourself how we are trying to deal with the huge influx of illegal immigrants, while Europe turns its back on burden sharing... Tonio Azzopardi, Floriana Malta

Jonny, why do we need to pay £18 billion/year to be able to trade with Europe? It's only 10% of our total trade and we pay nothing for trading with the rest of the world. We are Europe's biggest customer. They need us to buy their BMWs, cheese and wine. It just seems all wrong.
John Lilley, Kings Langley, UK

I have a very simple question - why you skipped stopping in the Czech Republic? Of course, we are a small country but at the moment we happen to chair the EU presidency, albeit under a crumbled government. I think it would be a most interesting thing for you to find out what the people living in a country headed by the most eurosceptic president think. Perhaps you would be surprised how much support EU has got here.. thanks and all the best, Nadia
Nadia, Prague, Czech Republic

Is it not true that the EU was sold purely as a means of free cross-border trading, but now seems to have developed into mothering and total interference in every aspect of our lives? The countries who benefit from EU membership are those who had nothing and now have the full protection of the EU mother state, with the promise of jobs or benefits in other territories such as the UK. The BNP policies may be right, as we've been sold totally down the road!
k smith, daventry, England

Europe should already have some experience of "marriage to a poor cousin" in case of German unification. Same will happen with extension of Europe to East. IF IT IS TO BE UNITED EUROPE then gradually the whole of Europe should reach a levelled living standard - somebody should go a little bit down, others gradually up. IF THE IDEA IS NEW COLONISATION - to extend Europe to have poor neighbours as cheap workforce whenever needed in Europe - with the idea to send them home when not needed - YES, you should rethink and stop where you are. We should better stay good neighbours.
StanislavSr, Belgrade, Serbia

I would like to know whether all EU countries, old and new, have to work to the same regulations - ie, health and safety, food and hygiene, working hours etc. I realise there are cost of living differences but what about other factors? In other words is it a fair playing field for workers across the EU?
Valerie Ward, Secondigny, France

The future relevance of Europe in the world depends on the success of the European Union as a political and economic union. The present generations still live in the old days' comfort zone, complaining about life standards deterioration, but newer generations will face the reality of China, India, Brazil and Russia to realise that there is no relevant future for countries smaller than provinces and a population smaller than the capitals of the large nations.Artur de Freitas, Johannesburg - South Africa

I see it says above "5 June - Germany" but I can only see a stop in Berlin marked on the map. Berlin is not Germany. It is totally unrepresentative. Hamburg, where I live, is much better as a city and as a sounding board, but to get the real German "man in the street" go to the Ruhr, visit Dortmund or Wuppertal or Essen. That will give you a much better sample.
RoyBear, Hamburg, Germany

Why are national politics being questioned? Whenever there is a debate on the media about the European Parliament and its members, nothing is discussed about what they can do for the Europeans. It's always what the parties are doing or not doing (in the case of opposition) in their own countries. Europe seems so far and of little interest for the Europeans, while national parties are mostly interested in their victories for legislative elections and give us little details on their ideas for the European Parliament.
Antonio Gandarinho, Aveiro, Portugal

I think we do need to dump a lot of Brussels. It is not democratic - it doesn't represent the people of Europe - as repeated referendum rejections have shown. It does not act in our best interests and is often counter-productive. I think we need a good and extensive ongoing discussion site - ie multiple threads with open discussion and well organised. There are many things that need to be sorted out, from effective 'internal exchange rates' - which currently contribute to job movement , freedom of trade - contractors and consultants are greatly restricted and penalised, removal of all the stupid legislation - fishing - dumping of undersized catch etc.

Personally I would much prefer to see a federation of states rather than a single European government - no EU parliament, just a meeting place for our governments. I would also like to see the EU bureaucracy cut right down - say to 10% of what it is currently. I think it would be a good idea to spread the EU bureaucracy throughout Europe - rather than concentrating it in one place - Brussels . We've done that with the central bank - we can do it with the other institutions.
Kim Lyon, London & Paris

The European Union free-market ideology has ruined the economy and the lives of eastern Europeans. To survive, where possible, the younger generation has moved to western Europe do do menial work for starvation wages where they are attacked by nationalists. The older generation who suffered communism must live the rest of their lives and old-age in absolute poverty. Well done neo-liberal EU.
James Yates, Munich, Germany

When you interview people who are worried about losing jobs due to cheaper labour in Poland and other new additions to the EU, would you mind asking them if they are wearing clothes made in China? In my opinion, this is part of a global problem which is driven by demand from the very people who complain about it. If Michelin tyre prices dropped due to a labour-cost saving, how many of the CGT marchers would insist on paying a higher price for Michelin products made in France?
Elitsa Mitova, Johannesburg, South Africa; born in Bulgaria

If Jonny were to go the Netherlands he would find a large majority against the EU's political development. Most are in favour of sound economic cooperation between (not too many!!) countries in Europe. But enthusiasm for the large, opaque and incredibly undemocratic ruling system of a political EU is low, getting lower. A majority would say 'no' to the Lisbon Treaty when asked.
Peter Cohen, Amsterdam, Netherlands

I am unemployed at present. For the past 2 years Polish workers have been doing work that I would otherwise have done. I get survival benefits. But how long will the EU last with this insanity? The French are not alone. Maybe just the loudest.
Robert, Finland

The EU was the result of the great vision of those who were weary of 2000 years of self-slaughter. It is essential to see the greater picture by keeping the feelings far and wide, with outstretched hands that the EU could grow larger and greater - from John O' Groats to Constantinople - no passports, one single currency! Stop all the grumbling and be glad for what we have - listen to The Ode to Joy and bathe in Peace Peace Peace.
Leonard Wells, Haslingden, UK

As a Frenchman I see the problem, but can't think of a solution, as we are so not competitive... and well, at least they relocate to eastern Europe, which is still better for us than if they were relocating to China. Besides, I am not aware of any eastern European cheese worth mentioning (please, don't speak about kachkaval!)
Victor, Le Havre, France



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EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
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GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
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SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
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