The Euro: In Euroland - Euro fever is not built in a day

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EUROLAND AWOKE yesterday morning to a giant headache but it had little to do with the introduction of the euro.

"After all that was drunk last night, I don't think many people this morning want to try dividing anything by six-point something and I don't know what," said Jean-Claude Chapet, 57, leaning on the zinc counter of a horse-racing bar in the centre of Caen, Normandy.

In truth, the New Year's Day bank holiday, and the weekend, meant the euro, even in its limited plastic, electronic and cheque-book forms, was not supposed to make its debut at street-level in France until Monday. One Parisian show-off managed, however, by prior arrangement with his bank, to pay for a New Year's Eve meal for seven at a restaurant on the Champs Elysee at five minutes past midnight yesterday morning. (His bill came to 298.80 euros or roughly pounds 210).

A brief survey of small businesses in Caen - all the big ones were closed - suggests the euro will take much longer to make its rather ghostly presence felt in provincial France. "Oh yes, we will be showing our prices in euros and francs," said Jean-Louis Richomme, 41, proprietor of a flower shop just off the Avenue 6 Juin. But when? "Oh, I think definitely before the end of this year, when we have everything sorted out with the banks and our suppliers."

The name of the avenue, the date of the D-Day invasion a few miles to the north, makes Caen as good a place as any to consider the implications of closing a century of two great European civil wars with the introduction of a single European currency.

The ancient capital of William the Conqueror was largely destroyed in fighting between French, British and German troops in June and July 1944. The mood of people in Caen yesterday - small businessmen and their customers - was enthusiastic but unhurried. Although the franc had vanished overnight, it was still reassuringly present in their pockets. Their coins and notes had been trans-substantiated into mere accounting units of a pan-European currency run from Frankfurt and serving 11 countries. But they still had Gustave Eiffel or Paul Cezanne on the back; a baguette still cost four francs and about 20 centimes, not 0.64 euros.

Claude Gervais, 55, another customer in the betting bar, complained that he still thought in "anciens francs", the currency that disappeared nearly 40 years ago. "Then we only had to divide by ten to get the new francs. With the euro it will be le bordel (literally, the brothel) to do the sums."

A shrug of the shoulders and a slug of red wine. "I suppose we will get used to it. It's all three years away, isn't it?"

Until 1 January 2002, when the new notes and coins appear, the euro will exist at street level only as an electronic, plastic and cheque currency. Small businesses are encouraged to show their prices in both euros and francs from Monday and to accept payment in euros by credit card or special cheques. There is, however, no compulsion on them to do so.

Jean-Claude Menard, proprietor of a large fishmongers selling fresh oysters, crayfish and lobsters for the continuing new year feasts, said: "Me, I'm definitely a European. With this new currency, we will be able to push the dollar around instead of being pushed around by the dollar. That has to be good for employment, doesn't it." But Mr Menard said he thought it would be "several months" before he had all his tills, bankers' card machines and price lists converted to operate in the two currencies.

In the meantime, the French state and its agencies are doing their best to excite the interest of their citizens. Any baby born in France yesterday was to be given a 100 euros (pounds 70) present from the state.