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Europeans Begin Using New Money - 2002-01-01


Europeans have begun using their new single currency, the euro, which became legal tender in 12 nations with a combined population of 300 million. Cash machines from Lisbon to Helsinki and from Dublin to Athens began dispensing crisp new euro notes at the stroke of midnight in what European leaders say is a giant step toward European integration.

Sound and light shows greeted the arrival of the euro in several European capitals. In Brussels, fireworks set the night sky ablaze.

New Year's revelers attending the shows trooped off to their money machines to get their hands on the new money. But some found that the cash dispensers were either out of order or still stocked with currencies the euro is supposed to replace.

No problem, though, as the old currencies like the franc, the mark and the lira will still be used during a brief transition period.

With most major retailers closed for the New Year's holiday, small shopkeepers, street vendors and cafe owners are having to bear the initial brunt of the euro cash launch.

Hans Vorster, who sells flowers at Frankfurt's huge railroad station, says he is worried he doesn't have enough change in euros to give to his customers. So he has worked out a temporary solution.

"When the customer pays with euros, he gets back euros. When he pays with D-marks, he will get back D-marks," he said.

Mr. Vorster says customers are not finding that to be a problem because everybody is still learning to use the new currency. The attitude at Paris cafes and Brussels bakeries is the same. You pay in euros, you get change in euros. You pay with francs, you get your change in francs.

Some Europeans woke up on New Year's day feeling richer, or at least better off. That was the case with Sebastien Rochard, a Paris medical technician who discovered his morning newspaper cost less than it used to "because one euro is 6.55 [francs]. And before, [the newspaper] was 7.00. So, it's a good deal for me."

Until Tuesday, the euro has been invisible even though it has been traded in money markets and used in stock transactions. But now, it can be used to buy a magazine, a new pair of shoes or a cup of coffee.

French finance minister Laurent Fabius is among the European leaders who believe the new currency will pave the way for tighter unity among European nations.

"I think it's really, this time, a historical moment," said Mr. Fabius. "Very often, we use the word 'historical,' and it's not historical. This time it is ... and it's not only a question of the new currency. It's a new stage in the building of the European Union."

The crucial day for the euro's launch will be Wednesday, when business resumes across the 12-nation euro zone. Some Europeans are worried that there may be cash shortages, and the threat of strikes by French and Italian bank employees could disrupt what, until now, has been a relatively smooth transition.