French say 'non' to single currency

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Even if France meets the economic criteria for joining the single European currency in time for the 1 January 1999 starting date, French voters might well reject the idea - if given a choice. This is the principal - and startling - finding of a new opinion poll, published in the latest issue of the quarterly journal, Geopolitique.

The journal, published by the institute of the same name, is an independent academic publication, and the poll - conducted by the IPSOS organisation - is believed to be the first genuinely independent survey of French opinion on the subject. Previous polls, which have shown a steady majority in favour, have been commissioned mostly by France's mainstream political parties, all of which support the single currency.

The new poll suggests that the French are almost as suspicious of a single European currency as the British and just as keen to take part in a referendum before it is introduced. A full 80 per cent of those asked said they wanted to be directly consulted, by referendum, before the politicians went any further towards introducing a single currency.

Almost 60 per cent rejected the idea of any new currency in general, and the euro in particular.

There was a general disinclination to be paid in euros or to use them for everyday shopping; and only 49 per cent of those asked even accepted the need for a single currency to facilitate transactions between EU member countries.

A big difference between the latest poll and the earlier ones was the specific nature of the questions asked. These went beyond the general "Do you favour a single European currency?" to probe the extent of public confidence in the projected euro. The results were not encouraging for the French government, which appears determined that France should be among the first countries to join the single currency on the planned date.

Only 34 per cent of those asked thought that a single currency would help safeguard the value of savings, against 41 per cent who thought it would not; only 33 per cent thought it would have a beneficial effect on unemployment (compared with 50 per cent who thought not), and there was similar scepticism about the euro's potential to protect health and social benefits and financial security in retirement.

Several questions also touched on the delicate matter of how a single currency might affect national sovereignty. Some 56 per cent thought it would have a negative effect on France's independence, while 58 per cent disliked the idea that a central European bank might set interest rates across Europe.

Although President Chirac held out the prospect of a referendum on the single currency during last year's election campaign, he has not mentioned the subject since taking office and his public statements have stressed his total commitment to the single currency.

The latest poll results were reported yesterday in a very low-key way by the daily Figaro - which takes a generally pro-Chirac editorial line - under the headline "Single currency: a certain disenchantment". But it was not clear from the poll results whether the French were really cooling to the euro, or whether this was just the first time that the more sensitive questions had been asked.

Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus said he opposed introduction of a single European currency as it would bring European taxes which Czechs would have to pay in Brussels, Reuter in Prague reports.

The economics daily Hospodarske Noviny quoted Klaus as telling an election campaign meeting he did not want to have "European citizenship" on his identification card "in 10 or 20 years".

"I want to remain a Czech citizen and pay Czech taxes," Klaus told the meeting on Thursday in the small town of Neratovice, north of Prague.

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