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17 September 2001

It’s a window! It’s a gate! It’s the euro!

The French are cheerful about giving up the franc. It's less than 200 years old and it was always ch

By David Lawday

I like the euro. Living in France, I already write cheques and buy petrol with it. The strange thing about the new European currency is that nobody much seems to lament what it replaces. In view of British sentimentality over the pound and the Queen’s head, one would have thought that the French, who do not lack a sense of identity, would be tearful about losing the franc. Its very name shouts Frenchness. Yet the disappearance of the franc seems of small popular concern as the euro progressively takes charge, ready to fill European pockets from 1 January 2002.

This is a huge moment for Europe, one in which Britain will have a part, like it or not. Europeans have been getting used to the idea of using their new money all this year, with shop prices marked in both the national currency (big figures) and in euros (little figures) from Brest to Berlin. As of this month, restaurant menus, phone bills, shops and post offices will show the euro in big print, while the franc, mark, lira, and so on, will appear in miniature, getting smaller and smaller until they go for good.

No one expected the dual pricing to work miracles, and it hasn’t. Consumer organisations say very few people yet have the slightest feel for the value of the euro. Most say they’ll deal with it when they have to, on 1 January, when the new coins and notes are doled out to the public. But what dual pricing has done is register in everyone’s mind that the switch is imminent – and that there’s a striking difference between the units of money people know and the unit with which they now need to get acquainted. The euro is a leaner, dearer currency than any used at present in the eurozone, except for the Irish pound.

The French, like all euro-users, are encouraged to see it as “our money”, an item to feel at home with. The promotional message is gently drummed in by the European Central Bank and France’s finance ministry. But even if this subtle push works as intended, it can’t explain French readiness to abandon the franc.

It is fairly easy to see why Germans, a large majority of whom still say they’d like to keep their beloved mark, are in fact resigned to giving it up: they can legitimately regard the euro as an extension of the money that brought them affluence. Besides, the switch should be good for exports, which Germany is good at. And, at heart, most Germans are prepared to make a sacrifice for the distinctly deeper European union created by the euro. As for Italians, they have been dying to lop off the lira’s frothing zeros for some time, and this is the golden chance. For Spaniards, shedding the peseta at last promotes them to senior European rank.

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Such motives don’t necessarily work for the French. But a powerful sense of identity need not mean blind attachment to a currency. French banknotes that are about to head for the last shredder carry portraits of cultural icons who have elevated France in the arts: Cezanne, Saint-Exupery, Debussy and the like. No disrespect to Darwin, who backs the Queen on our tenner, but these French artists provide good-looking money – sprightlier, let’s face it, than the bridges, windows and gateways that will feature on euro notes as relentlessly as the Queen stares from the pound.

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The trouble is that franc notes have tended to change all the time. No sooner had you grown fond of Descartes and Voltaire, say, than Rimbaud and Marie Curie slipped in to replace them, often in different colours. The swiftly changing cast entertains, but I dare say it has loosened the bond between the franc and its users. Nor is the franc the age-old symbol of Frenchness that its name implies. It was invented by Napoleon less than 200 years ago as a token of republicanism in place of a familiar French pound (livre) tarnished by the provenance of a royal mint that the revolution put out of business along with the crown head. The franc was stable for a hundred years or so, which gave it weight, but then went haywire after the Great War. It progressively weakened until, in 1958, General de Gaulle gave it a stronger look by eliminating two zeros. The “new franc” held firm for a while, but then turned ever more fragile against the German mark, until the coming of the euro thankfully set their relative values in stone.

Hence the French of today would be testing their nationalist instincts rather hard to maintain undying faith in the franc, which makes it easier to welcome the euro. But indifference to the passing of the old money does not make the arrival of the joint European currency a walk-over. Almost two in three French citizens express confidence in the euro, so the finance ministry says, despite the currency’s 20 per cent slide against the robust dollar since its launch for official and business transactions almost three years ago. By this count, the French are more relaxed than northern Europeans. But measure this confidence with caution.

A recent spurt of price increases has caused a fright. “Eurocheats”, the government contends, are threatening to sabotage the changeover. The problem is not so much counterfeiters, whose talents Wim Duisenberg’s European Central Bank hopes to have thwarted with a sophisticated array of copy-proof features in five-, ten-, 20-, 50-, 100-, 200- and 500-euro notes. All you need to do, Duisenberg says, is “feel, look and tilt” the euro notes to ascertain that they are genuine, which is good to know when even the middling 50-euro note is worth around £35 and the top end of the range weighs in at £310.

The “eurocheats” are more likely to be high-street traders – led by bakers, hairdressers and car repairers – who have abruptly raised their prices in francs for no other reason than to achieve an inflated conversion into euros. To meet this kind of threat, it is satisfying to be able to hand over a credit card and pay for petrol in euros before the changeover (petrol pumps, it seems, won’t operate in more than one currency, so they began switching to the euro after the summer break). This helps to situate the value of the euro. A litre of regular costs precisely one euro at the petrol station I use. One round euro will also buy a coffee, if taken at the cafe counter.

Alas, such reassuring conversions are the exception. The French are as perplexed as any Europeans by the mental arithmetic in store. Almost 80 per cent say they are worried about making mistakes with their change or being fiddled when using the euro. The best conversion shortcuts suggested to them would test Descartes: to convert francs into euros, add half the number and divide by ten; for euros into francs, multiply by 20 and divide by three. The wonder is that three in four French people profess to know that one euro equals 6.56 francs. The Germans are luckier: they just divide their marks by two to find the rough euro equivalent.

There won’t be long to get used to it all. For seven weeks from 1 January until 17 February, francs may still be offered in payment, but change must be given in euros. After that, francs will no longer be legal tender, though they can be exchanged at local banks until June. The tight timetable applies to all 12 countries using the euro.

So far, there is no panic. The mood tends to light-heartedness. There is a sense of adventure. The French rib each other about how they are going to tackle it on the day. What about grandad who still counts in “old francs” and won’t let go of the two zeros that de Gaulle eliminated 40 years ago? My own guess is that the biggest change in Europe’s experience with money will go off more smoothly than many are expecting – or hoping, in the case of the keep-the-pound supporters.

How does stay-away Britain come into it? Within weeks of the switch, London and other British tourist and business centres are likely to be awash with euros as Continental Europeans come through. Hotels, restaurants and shops will find it hard to resist taking their money. This will be a fillip for a dithering Tony Blair as he seeks a politically viable date, if Gordon Brown were to allow it, for a referendum on joining the euro.

Should the PM need further encouragement, he might reflect on French readiness to abandon the franc. He could then lean on the Bank of England to start changing the look of our banknotes at once. The changes must be frequent. It would be unwise to remove the Queen at this stage, but try Elton John on the back. Then Michael Owen. Or Sven-Goran Eriksson. The public will be entertained. And a bond may loosen.