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EU Prepares For Launch of Euro Currency - 2001-12-27

On January 1, 300 million people in 12 countries of the European Union will wake up to the euro. For the first time in the history of Europe, 12 national currencies will be replaced by one. "E-day," as some are calling it, is going to have a big effect in Geneva, Switzerland and nearby French villages.

Everything about E-day is big. January 1 will usher in the biggest-ever introduction of new banknotes on a single day.

For the people of Switzerland, the currency change is something they are watching with interest. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and so will not be converting to the euro. Instead it will maintain the Swiss franc.

But Switzerland is in the crossroads of Europe, as such the euro will affect the country's people, businesses and tourism industry.

The 12 European countries joining the euro have made big, lengthy preparations to get ready for this event. They have printed about 14 billion brand new notes. As many as 10 billion will hit the streets on New Year's day. In addition, some 50 billion new coins have been minted.

People have been picking up their euro coins. They will not be able to get any of the new bills until January 1. Banks are withholding the paper money until then to try to prevent counterfeiters from getting a head start on forging the euro notes.

Albert Garnier, Account Manager for Lyonnaise de Banque, a bank in the French village of Ferney Voltaire near the Swiss border, says about 50 people have been working for the past five years to prepare for the euro conversion. New Year's Day is a public holiday and all the banks will be closed. But, Mr. Garnier says the ATM's (Automated Teller Machines) will be ready to dispense money. "It is supposed to be working," he says. "We are not anticipating any run out of money with the automatic cashiers. If everything works OK, you are supposed to come to our bank on January 1 at 0001 and you are supposed to get euro if you make a withdrawal."

Depending on the country, old notes in national currencies will continue to circulate for another four to eight weeks. People in France have until February 17 to change their francs.

"I will not mourn the passing of the French franc, no," says Cathy Fegli, 35, who works for the United Nations in Geneva. She lives in the small French border town of St. Genis. She is a strong supporter of European unity and believes a common currency will create a stronger Europe.

"Oh, I feel very good about that," she says. "I feel that one way to get a bigger unity passes absolutely through a common money for everybody. So, I really like this idea and I cannot wait to have our new money."

Calculating how many francs, lire or pesetas make up one euro is not always easy and can be highly technical. Some conversions, for example, run to six decimal places. Nevertheless, Ms. Fegli believes she will adapt quickly to the new money, but says she expects older people will have a tough time. "My grandmother is still doing all of the conversion between the old French franc and the new one [franc]," she says. "And, it has been - what? - maybe almost 30 years that we have changed our currency [from old to new franc]."

Business is brisk in the French supermarket, Champion, in Ferney Voltaire. Things are quieter across the street in Boutique Elysee. Business in this elegant men's shop has not been so good since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Nevertheless, saleswoman, Maude Limage says preparations for the changeover from the French franc to the euro have been going on for months. "It will not be so difficult for us, really," she says. "We live close to Geneva and we get used to change Swiss money almost every day."

Meanwhile, across the border in Geneva, the arrival of the euro on January 1 is getting a mixed reception:

"I think it is not good for Switzerland," says one man.

"I already have euro in my UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland)," says a woman.

"Sometimes I go to France, I go to Germany, so it is better to have euro. So, I am sure I will have euro in my pocket," says another woman.

"It is a simplification instead of having 12 changes we will have have only one for the 12 countries," says another woman.

"Not for everyday, says another woman. "No, never. It does not make any sense because here I can not pay my parking with a euro."

Switzerland staunchly maintains its neutrality and independence. It does not belong to the European Union so it does not have to worry about surrendering its franc to the euro. But, this picturesque Alpine country is surrounded by EU members who have chosen to use the euro. And people here believe Switzerland will not be able to stay out of the euro zone forever.