PARIS The euro received a polite if less than warm welcome yesterday on its first day of business, but the new European currency’s biggest test looms today as banks, businesses and stores open their doors after a break for the New Year’s Day holiday.
In France, banks and post offices are bracing for a strike because of the introduction of the euro, which has given unions a “golden opportunity” to flex their muscles.
Notorious for militancy, French unions know that government agencies and corporations have invested huge political capital in a successful debut for the euro, allowing disgruntled workers to press demands for better pay and workplace security.
French commercial banks contend that the country’s trade unions are trying to hold the country for ransom, a charge the union chiefs readily admit, if in different terms.
“A golden opportunity like this is unlikely to come our way again,” gloated Michel Marchet, spokesman for the liberal CGT union. “Our employers are in a position where they must negotiate, and, if necessary, we will hit them where it hurts.”
He and other union chiefs have rejected as “laughable” a proposed pay increase and $700 bonus. They say their employers have not provided sufficient security at teller windows, making bank robberies too easy.
French banks and the national post office voiced confidence last night that the nationwide strike call would not seriously disrupt the first business day of the European currency. They noted that it won’t be easy to mobilize French citizens for a strike when many workers are already on vacation during this holiday-shortened work week.
Although the euro has been used in banking transactions for three years, Parisians greeted the euro’s arrival in cash registers yesterday with a mixture of irritation and puzzlement.
“It’s monopoly money,” sneered Franck Lombaard, a 35-year-old limousine security guard, as he sipped coffee in the Cafe du Nord across the street from the train station that links France with Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. “It’s stupid. Why must we have two different currencies at the same time? Today, they should simply have finished with French francs and brought in Euros. Not both.”
He was worried about how older people and shopkeepers would cope with the new currency while the old one is slowly taken out of circulation.
A silver-haired man shrugged: “I am not euro-friendly, but what choice do I have?”
Two diners, Alexander, 23, and Aurelie, 20, paid in francs, glanced at the euros on the next table and muttered, “It’s complicated.”
A waiter threw up his hands when a reporter asked for his check, listed in francs, to be converted to euros. “Ooh la la,” he said. “You actually want to pay in euros. I am sad. I’ll have to work it out.”
The waiter did not return.
A nearby fruit-seller held up a 100-franc note, then a new euro note, and cast his vote for the franc. “The old notes are beautiful; the new notes are ugly,” he said.
In theory, the French have 44 days before their francs become worthless. But French Finance Minister Laurent Fabius is confident that most francs will be taken out of circulation long before then. He declared last night that more than 90 percent of automated teller machines had been stocked with euros and said, “Within 15 days, I expect more than 95 percent of francs will have disappeared already.”
French television viewers were told that French travelers to England on the Eurostar train, which burrows hourly through a 23-mile tunnel under the English Channel, had successfully “contaminated” Britain by changing euros in London. Britain is one of three European Union countries that has declined, so far, to relinquish its national currency in favor of the euro. Denmark and Sweden are the other holdouts.
The Eurostar’s London currency change office cheerfully provided euros to travelers leaving to Paris and Brussels.
So far, there has been little actual currency disruption, apart from a long delay at a French toll road that ran out of change.
Politicians rushed to inform television viewers here how generously they had spent their first euros. Many of them said they bought their wives roses.
Polls in all but two of the 12 euro-zone countries indicated that less than half the population supported the euro’s introduction. The Italians are the most euro-enthusiastic, according to surveys, partly because they believe the new currency could dampen the country’s perennial inflation problem.
Yet across Europe there were fears that the changeover would open the door to price gouging. That has led Spain to set up a “euro-observatory” to monitor rip-offs.
Security firms said they were facing far greater dangers as unprecedented amounts of money were being transferred across the continent. “If any of us gets killed because of the euro, we’ll all stop work,” said a Brink’s security guard who asked not to be named. “No exceptions, no deals.”
Already some critics are seeing their fears fulfilled. A recent series of bank robberies, one involving a rocket-propelled grenade, has kept police busy, although authorities have recovered much of the loot.
Europol, the European police agency, with headquarters in The Hague, has been tracking counterfeiters who have been sending euro notes outside Europe for counterfeiting. Europol believes the forgeries may fool people in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia and other regions unfamiliar with the new currency.
Despite these teething problems, European leaders are heralding the euro’s arrival in cash form as a harbinger of greater European political integration. That, they said in celebrations across Europe on New Year’s Day, is no mean feat for a continent riven by centuries of mistrust and two major wars in the past century.