Bof! French accept the euro but with a Gallic shrug

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The Independent Online

You can take the franc out of France but you cannot take the Frenchness out of the French.

You can take the franc out of France but you cannot take the Frenchness out of the French.

The first day of the euro passed off in Paris - and the rest of France - amid great calm and in widespread indifference to the "rules" laid down by French officialdom.

"All small shopkeepers must try to give change for francs in euros," officialdom said.

"Bof, why should we do the government's work?" said the shopkeepers. Every shop, every market stall, every bakery, every bar in my quartier of Paris gave change for francs in francs and for euros in euros.

"All shoppers should try to switch to euros from the first day," officialdom advised.

"Bof", said many of the shoppers in many places. "We'll get rid of our francs first and we'll come around to the euro in due course."

Rejection of the euro? No, just a rejection of the rules. French people accept the theoretical necessity for red traffic lights but that does not stop them driving through them whenever they can.

Sebastian Wespiser, 31, owner of the newsagent on our street in the 17th arrondissement, was utterly Euro-positive. "It's a great day, an important day," he said. "From the moment I opened this morning, I was serving at least one customer in three in euros. As the day has gone on, it has built up steadily. Old people, young people. There is no pattern." He proudly showed off his two "tills", an automatic till for euros and a drawer for francs.

Was he dutifully giving euros in change for francs, following the advice of the Ministry of Finance to all shopkeepers?

"No, not at all," he said. "I am a shopkeeper, not a banker. Why should I do their work for them, for nothing? It's not necessary to do things that way. If people give me francs, I give them francs in change, otherwise every transaction would take so long that there would be a queue down the street. The francs will disappear soon enough anyway."

Mr Wespiser had a point. Every other small business in the neighbourhood took the same rebellious line. There were no complaints or quarrels, probably less than there would have been if every small purchase – every baguette or every beer – had to be computed in two currencies.

With 85 per cent of cash machines in France switched over to the euros by last night, the supply of francs will soon run out – they remain legal tender until 17 February.

Yesterday, some people were proudly brandishing euros. Others refused to be hurried.

Over at the Poncelet-Bayen food market – one of the most celebrated in Paris – there was scarcely a euro to be seen. "I expected to be offered euros today but I haven't seen one," said Geneviève Gautret, 52, proprietor of a stall that held dozens of different glittering kinds of fish and shellfish.

"Just look at my till. It is stuffed with coins but they are franc coins. Everyone has been searching the pockets of their old jackets and the backs of cupboards for every last franc. We'll see plenty of euros by the end of the week but not today."

What I did not find, in a whole morning trudging around the district, was anyone who spoke ill of the euro. From the old lady drawing out her first euro notes with a look of astonished concentration, to an 11-year-old girl paying for a bunch of flowers for her mother with her first euro pocket money, all accepted the new currency in a spirit of calm and curiosity. And confidence.

"What it means to me to hold a euro is simple enough," said Alain Palud, 63, a retired computer engineer. "It means there can never be another war in Europe. How could you fight against people who use the same money as you do?"

An elderly man in the corner newsagent was coaxing his small granddaughter to go up and pay for his copy of Le Monde with a euro note.

"You do it, cherie." "No, grandad, you do it." "No," he said finally. "You must do it and remember it forever. I am an old man. The euro is your future, not mine."