At home in the euro zone's heart


You have to hand it to the surveyors from the French National Geographical Institute. They managed to locate the geographical centre of the 11 countries that now share the euro as their official currency between the village of Argent (which translates as "money") and the Museum of Witchcraft.

The surveyors left a small granite marker in a field belonging to a Sorbonne economics professor in the village of Blancafort in the Berry region of central France. The inhabitants of Blancafort hope the landmark will draw tourists and plan to name a street or cafe after the euro. The local baker, Mr Ligneule, would like to follow up his "Witch's Tongue" speciality biscuit with a pastry called the euro.

Blancafort typifies France's good-natured acceptance of the new currency. The only grumbling in the last days of the franc came from a euro-enthusiast, the former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who deplores the term Euroland as "a dreadful Anglo-Saxon expression" and complains that the use of five decimal points in the franc-euro exchange rate will alienate the public.

"The euro is going to change Europe - first of all, our way of thinking," President Jacques Chirac said in a televised New Year's Eve address. He praised the French for their "lucidity and open-mindedness" in choosing to participate in EMU. "The euro is lucky for us Frenchmen," he said. "The euro will bring us more choice in our purchases, lower prices, new market shares, new investment possibilities and thus more jobs. It will bring us greater stability in an uncertain world."

While Mr Chirac was delivering his speech on Thursday night, 10,000 employees were settling in for a unique New Year's holiday at the stock exchange, central bank and main Paris banks. They were scheduled to work from the afternoon of December 31st until the early hours of Monday morning, January 4th, changing all data in Bourse and bank computers from francs to euros, adjusting the values of shares - and converting France's entire public debt into euros.

The banks are flouting draconian French laws against working on legal holidays, but no one is complaining. An agreement negotiated last July provides for 50 per cent above the hourly pay rate, plus a 500 franc (76.2 or £60) bonus each day. Most banks, however, are paying between Ffr2,500 and Ffr3,000 in daily bonuses to each employee.

Paribas ordered 3,000 meals plus 1,000 breakfasts, and rented nearby hotel rooms for 500 employees working through the weekend. The bank even used different caterers so personnel would not get bored with the food. Itprinted up 2,000 jerseys with the slogan "Paribas Euroleader" and provided champagne on New Year's Eve. These niceties accounted for a small fraction of the Ffr450 million

Paribas is spending on the switch. The change is expected to cost the entire French banking sector Ffr20 billion. In front of a half dozen television crews, the Banque Nationale de Paris's (BNP) 100 New Year's Eve slaves, accompanied by musicians, dined on salmon, foie gras, salad and charlotte a la poire. "Just because we're working doesn't mean we should forget to celebrate," a BNP manager said. The Credit Lyonnais's "Monsieur Euro" was more sober. "We're providing meal trays and hotel rooms, but nothing fancy - we're here to work," he said.

As part of its euro promotion campaign, the French government promised savings accounts with 100 to each of the 1,500 new babies expected to be born yesterday.

Opinion polls show that virtually all French people (93 per cent) are able to name the new currency, compared to less than half two years ago. More surprising, 80 per cent know the approximate conversion rate of francs to euros, and 63 per cent consider themselves "well-informed".

There was little mourning for the franc, which now exists only as a denomination of the euro. Some historians claim the franc was the oldest currency in Europe, dating to the fall of the Roman Empire. At the very least, it went back to 1356, when the French minted gold coins to pay ransom for King Jean le Bon, who was held prisoner for four years by the English. The name means "free" and is also the masculine of "France".