Tim Luckhurst: Frankly, France has become a model for Britain


There are, among the proud denizens of Blighty, some who are unmoved by plummeting markets, collapsing blue chips and frenzied currency exchanges. They are the Europhobes, those pre-modern paranoids whose philosophy dare not admit that global financial chaos makes the case for British entry to the single currency even stronger.

There are, among the proud denizens of Blighty, some who are unmoved by plummeting markets, collapsing blue chips and frenzied currency exchanges. They are the Europhobes, those pre-modern paranoids whose philosophy dare not admit that global financial chaos makes the case for British entry to the single currency even stronger.

A few are of the left. Were that not true, a referendum date would have been set when New Labour was still young and omnipotent. Most are not. Most represent the bijou Britisher right. These are the people Conservative leaders quail from confronting. Which is a shame, because subverting geriatric inactivists' dark suspicions about the foreign threat to their way of life might help give Britain the robust debate it needs.

What better time to start than now? Rarely has the opportunity been so golden for a direct assault on vein-bursting national angst about the evil euro. The proof that it is benign, no threat at all to sovereignty, is palpable everywhere that the "€" symbol, that curious contemporary epsilon, has replaced national symbols of monetary exchange.

No vestigial terror of the new can survive experience of modern France. Here in Britanny they celebrated Bastille Day with the zeal of Jacobins, revelled in the Gaullist pomp that paralysed Paris and bought their drinks with the same currency as Germans. Not a tear was shed. Not even by the old.

Granted, the French of Margaret Thatcher's generation have seen currencies come and go. As Third Republic gave way to Fourth and then, semi-legally, to Fifth, the mature French citizen got reconciled to monetary modernisation. Those gossamer-light Vichy coins were still in circulation brief decades ago. Some recall when the cigarette was worth more than the franc. Currencies change. It is the natural order, a cause of confusion not fury, and now not even that.

The old fellow in the supermarket proved it. As he fumbled with the little one- and two-cent coins, the checkout girl volunteered help. "One hundred of the smallest ones make up one of these," she said, grabbing a euro coin from his palm. "So, if you give me..." The man's stare would have stunned a rhino. "I've got arthritis, not dementia. It's decimal, like everything else." Quite, and the joy for many is that it is precisely the same as everything else.

A bar owner near the beach at Port Blanc was smiling after a Sunday-evening invasion by German bikers. "Before, they used to arrive here on Saturday night with no French cash in their pockets. They'd offer me credit cards for a few beers. The commission made it expensive. Now they just pay with what's in their wallets. It's only the Swiss who are losing out." He seemed pleased about that.

And the Brits? He didn't want to insult a customer. Friends point out that for all my modern plastic, the debit cards that work as smoothly as they do at home, I am still paying a commission that eurozoners avoid. I admit it: their insouciance about the death of the franc was beginning to irritate me.

Surely the evidence to sustain Europhobia was only just below the surface. They must know they are being ripped off. It is futile to try the "single currency leads inevitably to single government" line. Those who believe it tend to want it, and them as don't dismiss the notion that France would ever surrender sovereignty. So I tried the market.

Had stallholders seized the chance to ramp up their prices? They always do that, explained my pal Benoit. "If it's not a new currency, they'll try telling you that there's an acute shortage of carrots or that the area around Perpignan has mysteriously stopped producing melons."

The small ads on walls and in shop windows show how thoroughly integrated the euro is. The sort of scepticism that derides the single currency as a plaything of a remote intelligentsia, anathema to the salt-of-the-earth masses, would expect these ads, for the private sale of knackered cars and sea-smashed motorboats, to appear in francs. They don't.

The Prime Minister should seize the chance. Perhaps Iain Duncan Smith should offer package tours to the chairmen of stubbornly unmodern Conservative associations. They might go home still adamant that flirtation with the euro will lead inevitably to giant armoured frogs marching in formation through Surbiton, pillaging toddlers to satisfy their awful appetites. Maybe. But a few might see the dull, unthreatening truth.

It is just coinage, a convenient medium for routine exchange, and so much easier to fathom than those multiplying pesetas or dizzying millions of lire. From my French hideaway, it is clear that Euroscepticism can never be taken seriously while it insists on parading a nonsense hundreds of thousands of British holidaymakers know to be untrue.

France as a model for modern Britain? It is already, if only our delusions would allow us to admit it. It has trains that run fast, not into each other; exams that reward academic ability; teachers who earn professional salaries; hospitals no Chancellor will ever afford to replicate; and now a currency it shares with its major trading partners. And France is still assertively French. Convinced, O sceptic ones? No. Thought not. Now, can the SA80 rifle be relied upon to penetrate the hide of those frogs?


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