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Single currency, or double entendre?

Boz magazine, 50: 12, June 1998.

Brian J Ford

There’s one in every family: a pushy individual who’s as fixed in their ways as a kitchen tap. In the European family it’s France, bless her. General de Gaulle gave the thumbs down to Britain joining the Common Market, saying it was because we’d be the one out on the edge, causing trouble. What he didn’t say was that France would cause more trouble than the rest put together—but she’d be doing it from the centre, where it matters. Now that Germany has finally won the Second World War, and the troops have at last come home, the French seize any chance to stake their claim to fame. That’s why they fought to install a Frenchman to run the European Bank in its German headquarters. It wasn’t that he was necessarily good at the job - just that he was French.

According to the Maastricht Treaty, a head of the European bank must be appointed for a period of eight years. Wim Duisenberg, the former head of the Netherlands National Bank, was the unanimous choice of every European nation—apart from France. The French held out for their own compatriot J-C Tichet (nice initials!) of the French National Bank. To make it fit the demands of the Treaty, Duisenberg would ‘decide’ to stand down after four years. When Tichet took over, so said the French, it would be for eight years, naturellement: eight years is what the Treaty of Maastricht had laid down. This occurred during the British Presidency, which gave our own dynamic Prime Minister the role of chairing the discussion. Tony Blair, as usual, simply gave in. The French would have their way, even though it meant flying in the face of the Treaty and going against the wishes of every other member state. Mr Blair has hailed this as a triumph. He seems to do this a lot: he senses which way the decision is going anyway and then claims the credit.

The government made this look like a great diplomatic success. To me it’s more like a rout. The French have made their mark like a cat spraying anal scent against Mr Blair’s trousers. This time it won’t wash off. The French advertise their presence whenever they can. When the British design for a supersonic passenger plane was being jointly developed with the French, its name was Concord (spelt the English way). The French insisted it be spelt with an extra -e. The final letter stood for ‘Europe’, they said. Nonsense. It was actually the French inflicting their spelling on the English-speaking international aviation industry.

People don’t realise how close they came to success over the new unit of European currency. It was originally named as though it were an acronym, the ‘ecu’. The idea was promoted by the French, which should have made everyone look for a hidden agenda. It was obvious that, if the term were an acronym for ‘European Currency Unit’, as France pretended, the initials would have been in a different order to comply with the French language. We would have been faced with the UCE, or even the CUE, but certainly not the ECU. Although nothing has been said about it, ‘ecu’ was the name of a French coin. The real écu (one word, for this is no acronym) was a coin worth £6. It was produced in 1792, measured 39mm across, and was made of solid silver. The original meaning of écu was ‘shield’, but in later years it came to be the French slang term for ‘cash’. By slipping it into the language of Europe, making it look new and non-partisan, the French were scoring over old rivals. I once suggested that we could adopt a different name, one which every Englishman would hold dear. I thought we should call it the Quintessentially Universal Indicator of Denomination. There must be an acronym there, somewhere.

The French are fanatical about their language. That’s why a French letter is un capot anglais, and why the French Academy condemns expressions like le weekend. You don’t use a computer in France (even though the word almost looks French) but un ordinateur. Just don’t mention that they still sell metric flowers in the imperial douzaine, or that French plumbing is all imperial, too. For the French, sticking French words and people around the place like is a child sticking rude posters in the window.

Every pound of Golden Delicious sold in Berwick Street may look like a bag of apples, but it isn’t. It is a PR campaign, just to keep things ticking over until Monsieur ‘first class’ Tichet takes over. He has been rumoured to be nothing more than a warring banker, but that cannot be right. He’s French, so he’s bound to be the opposite.

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