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Page last updated at 08:19 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 09:19 UK

Eurosceptic French town rejects euro

The European single currency is under unprecedented pressure. But even in the most staunchly pro-European countries, some people have never been enamoured of the euro, as David Chazan discovers in rural France.

Shopkeeper Sylvie Auteau and a customer
Sylvie Auteau says her customers prefer paying in francs

Shopkeeper Sylvie Auteau counts out a pile of French franc notes on the counter of her clothes shop.

"Most people prefer francs," says Ms Auteau. "They are French, after all."

Eight years after the euro was introduced, the franc is still in use in Le Blanc - a small market town of 7,000 people in the agricultural heartland of central France.

'Prices went up'

Ms Auteau says the decision by shopkeepers to accept payment in francs is not a protest against the euro - and not all retailers accept them. The main aim was to give business a boost.

But many people here harbour increasing anti-European feelings as unemployment rises and farm subsidies fall.

"They feel cheated by the euro and they think prices went up when it came in, even if that's not really true," Ms Auteau says.

"And with the expansion of the EU to the east, we feel we're being over-taxed, that we're feeding the others."

100 franc note
There is nostalgia for the old French currency

The French have until 2012 to exchange franc notes for euros at the bank.

Ms Auteau's shop is among some 30 businesses here which still accept francs as well as euros.

She says many people had found francs at the bottom of a drawer after their parents or grandparents died.

There is little industry in this area, so almost everyone in Le Blanc depends on farming, directly or indirectly.

Farmers' incomes declined by 30% last year, and 20% the year before.

That has had a huge impact. In Le Blanc, it is easy to understand why President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to fight to preserve European Union aid to French farmers.

That was one of the main points he made on Wednesday in his first public comments since his party suffered a resounding defeat in regional elections.

Making ends meet

French farmers used to reap generous EU subsidies but these have been scaled down.

Last year Brussels ruled that some of the aid farmers have been receiving from the French government in recent years was illegal. Many have been told they will have to pay it back.

Market at Le Blanc
Local farmers' incomes have been dropping rapidly

"We're facing a very big reduction in the aid we get because of the current reform of the Common Agricultural Policy at a time when market prices are low," says Robert Chaze, who owns a farm 10km (six miles) outside Le Blanc, and is chairman of the local chamber of agriculture.

Mr Chaze says that farmers in this region are facing a further fall in their income this year of 10-20%.

Until recently, the French tended to be passionate supporters of the EU, but Mr Chaze says farmers now feel "crushed" by what they see as an oppressive European bureaucracy.

No-one is suggesting that France should leave the EU. But another local farmer, Philippe Demiot, who runs a farm just outside Le Blanc, says it is getting ever harder to make ends meet. He believes Brussels does not seem to have a coherent plan for the future of French or European agriculture.

"Today the plans of Europe aren't very good for us," he says. "It's hard for us to understand where the European bureaucrats want to take us. What do they want to do with us?"

Many people in this area feel that with the enlargement of the EU, France lost a lot of influence in Brussels.

Unemployment in France is the highest it has been in a decade - more than 10% - and there is growing anxiety about the future.

'Francs felt good'

Walking around Le Blanc, the proportion of old people seems remarkably high. Residents say many of the younger generation have left because they could not find jobs.

Sign in French shop
People can still "pay here in Francs"

It is hardly surprising that there is nostalgia for the old days - and for the old currency.

In the past three years, shops and restaurants in Le Blanc have collected well over 1m francs - more than 150,000 euros (£135,100).

That is hardly a fortune, but it is a significant amount for a small town in these troubled times - and francs are also still being used in a few other towns and villages.

"I had a few francs left in a drawer," says Christiane Brunet, who is out doing her shopping.

"I was keeping them to show my grandchildren, but I haven't got any left now, only a few coins."

Ms Brunet says she prefers francs. "I felt good with francs but not with euros. I think we were all cheated because prices doubled. Everything's so expensive now."

She thinks the EU is a good thing, but adds: "It's not easy. All [the members] should have the same standards but that's not the case."

The Greek crisis has raised fears about the future of the euro - perhaps another reason why so many people in Le Blanc take comfort from dusting off their old francs and retreating into the past.



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