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Bank fees, lack of access keep Europeans from hyping the euro

At the Chateau de Cocove, an 18th century manor that has been turned into a hotel and restaurant, staffers are wondering where the new money they've heard so much about is.

Since the euro, the common currency of 11 nations of the European Union, came into legal being in January, exactly two guests at the ritzy 22-room establishment 20 minutes from the Channel Tunnel have opted to pay with checks written in euros.

Evelyne Bricout, who keeps the chateau's books, isn't eager to see more.

"When I put the first check in the bank, I was frankly shocked at the charges we had to pay," she said. "Maybe it's better that next time we ask them to redo the check in francs."

More than seven months since the euro's official and much-ballyhooed launch, zeal for it seems scarce among the 290-million consumers who inhabit the countries of "Euroland."

The currency won't exist as actual money _ coins and bank notes _ for another 2{ years. But Euroland's people have the option of using checks or charge cards denominated in euros. Few are.

At one of the smartest department stores in Paris, the Galeries Lafayette, only 800 euro payments were recorded in the first half of this year.

According to the French Bankers Association, 12,000 checks are written in euros daily _ out of a total of 20-million.

The Banque Nationale de Paris, or BNP _ one of this country's largest banks with 5-million customers _ delivers a mere 100 to 150 checkbooks denominated in euros daily. France can claim the honor of being the Euroland member where more credit card charges are made in euros than anywhere else _ but they amount to far less than 1 percent of the total.

"Everybody is in favor of the euro, but nobody is using it," joked Jean Legrand, a town council member in Saint-Omer, 10 miles from the Chateau de Cocove.

In truth, it's still not that easy to make a purchase in euros. Jean-Pierre Leonard, director of economic and legal affairs at the Paris-based National Council of Commerce, estimates that only one-third of the 600,000 terminals where French consumers can insert a credit card and pay for lunch in a cafe or for groceries at the market have been converted for euro-card use.

And, as the Chateau de Cocove has learned, bank fees on checks written in euros can be steep. Whether a check drawn on a foreign bank is in euros or Finnish marks, BNP levies a 156-franc (about $25) processing fee, or 15 percent of the check's value, whichever is less.

"A lot of people thought the euro was going to make banking frontiers fall in Europe," said Philippe Caplet, BNP's euro coordinator for France. "That may happen in 10 or 20 years."

Many analysts believe that the benign neglect of the new currency means consumers won't begin to take it seriously until 2002, when they will be forced to use it and the euro forever will replace the French franc and other Euroland currencies. Mass bewilderment might result.

That's because Europeans "don't believe the euro has become their official currency," said Jean-Pierre Buthion, an official with a French trade association. "They think it's some kind of gimmick."

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