French cheers, British froideur: Hester Lacey joins the Channel Tunnel celebrations in Calais

'IT'S ALL a bit crazy,' Georges, the taxi-driver, admitted cheerfully. 'We all know no one will be using the tunnel until September or October, when the tourists will already have come and gone. But the celebrations have been planned - for years. And the French love celebrating. I saw the Queen on TV today. Magnificent, in magenta, with a lovely hat.'

Georges has had an excellent week. Calais has just completed seven days of events to mark the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel, culminating in firework displays and pageants. 'Just look at all this,' he said gleefully, surveying with satisfaction Friday night's nose-to- tail traffic jam in the village of Coquelles, just outside Calais, site of the tunnel terminus. 'Normally there's no one here.'

Van-loads of police were attempting to keep the traffic moving, as people poured into Coquelles to see the huge firework display.

The evening was only slightly marred when the free coaches that had ferried sightseers from the centre of Calais failed to return on schedule to pick them up. 'If this is European co-operation you can stuff it,' muttered one elderly man.

Later in the town centre bar Le Folkestone, the mood was upbeat. 'We are far more enthusiastic about the tunnel than you are,' said Paul a construction worker, accusingly. 'The British are only interested in keeping themselves to themselves. In France the whole country is keen. My sister's kids in the Dordogne have all been doing projects on it at school.' But surely the celebrations are a bit premature? 'No. I worked on the site; it's true the work was held up but we should tell the world we're proud of our achievement.'

Unemployment in Calais fell from nearly 20 per cent of the 75,000 inhabitants to 13.5 per cent when work started on the tunnel, but is already beginning to creep up again. The Mayor of Calais, Jean-Jacques Barthe, one of the last remaining Communist mayors in France, has cast doubts on the project's long-term effectiveness as an economic boost to the region. But Paul is optimistic: 'There's still work around.'

His friend Thierry is unmoved. 'British trippers won't change. They'll drive over, load their cars up with the cheapest stuff they can find and drive home again. They won't come into my shop because it's not on one of the main streets. Anyway,' he added morosely, 'it's an ironmonger and garden supplies shop and holidaymakers don't generally want buckets and lawnmowers. I couldn't care less about the tunnel and I'm not celebrating. I'm out for a drink, that's all.'

In the shops of Calais, visitors can already stock up on tunnel memorabilia, even though they can't go through it yet. There are mugs and commemorative medals and there is even an enormous tunnel cake, made of choux buns and nougat, with miniature trains running on chocolate tracks.

The streets are unglamorous; 20 per cent of the town's business comes from English tourists - eight million visitors arrive by ferry every year, but about 40 per cent of them stay less than three days.

'If the tunnel brings in even more English, it's great with me,' said Norbert, who runs a thriving pizzeria. 'I don't care if they stay three hours, three days or three weeks as long as they eat pizza. We like you, and we like your money, too. Any new developments in the region can only be good.'

Calais has benefited from heavy government spending on new ways to link it to the rest of France; isolation is one reason why the region has been depressed and has had an 'assisted area' status for many years. A giant freight terminal under construction aims to boost the area further. 'We shall certainly be having a little celebration tonight,' said Patric, a teacher, who was stocking up on wine and nibbles in the supermarket on Saturday morning; a copy of the local paper had the headline 'British pragmatism and French elan have made a miracle.'

'While it's important to realise our problems can't be solved overnight, the tunnel has already brought the region into international focus. The govt government has invested so much already that they are sure to keep supporting us. It's so important for the kids. It's heart-breaking teaching them when you know so many will end up on the dole.'

The gaggle of scruffy teenagers hanging about on the steps of the town's theatre, in front of the tourist desk (closed) were completely indifferent. Are they glad of closer links with England? 'We don't mind. It's boring.'

At the other end of the tunnel, in Folkestone, there was not so much boredom as disinterest.

The Celebration 94 Carnival Day was a somewhat muted affair, though large numbers turned out to see the fireworks and hear an orchestral concert. Rob Low, assistant manager at the East Kent Arms said custom had been pretty much as normal: 'We've had a few more come in and disappear like they usually do. It could have been better than it was.'

Stuart Whitton, publican at The Ship in Sandgate was more enthusiastic. 'I've seen the tunnel being built from start to finish. In fact, it was pretty much built from here]'.

If the French are generally more enthusiastic about the tunnel than the British, they are also braver about it. No one in Calais expressed any fears about using it. 'French engineers were involved, so of course it's quite safe,' said one old lady trustingly.

(Photograph omitted)

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