Business

How France views the eurozone crisis

TGV train passes in front of billboard showing an enormous eye
Image caption The French are watching the crisis in Greece closely

It's 6.58 in the morning. Paris' Gare de Lyon is busy and a little chilly, and the train south is packed.

Many people are nodding off, but those that stay awake long enough to open their newspapers, are reading once again about the crisis in Europe.

About the Greek referendum. About the threat to the common currency they carry in their wallets.

In the relative quiet of the first-class cabin, Dominique-Paul Vallee is working on his laptop.

It's the time of year when the chief executive of Bericup, a French multinational making bottle lids, should be drawing up his investment strategy.

Now, with the "Greek problem", it's proving harder than usual.

"This new crisis is going to increase again the level of uncertainty. We are in the process of making our budget, and we have no clue of the forecasts of some of our customers."

For him, the solution is perhaps to create a two-tier eurozone, with a lower level consisting of the countries that struggled to meet the entry requirements the first time round.

"It would be good. Greece, Portugal, maybe Spain and Italy could work in the 'lower' euro until their debt is reduced. Instead of pushing them out of the eurozone entirely."

Fear of collapse

An hour and forty minutes down the track, and the TGV pulls into Dijon, capital of the Burgundy region - and of mustard-making.

Image caption Mr Vallee says thanks to the eurozone crisis he has no clue how to forecast some customers' demand

There is a sweet smell of vinegar in the air at the Reine de Dijon mustard factory. Every day they make 180 tonnes of the stuff.

Big bottles and tiny jars clink along conveyor belts. And on the production line there are varying views of the euro crisis - even from two men with the same name.

"What is happening to Greece could happen to any country. And of course we French have to change our lifestyle too to some extent," says Sebastien with a broad smile.

There is though more scepticism from his namesake colleague:

"It would have been better to have a free-trade Europe - but one without the common currency," he says, with a resigned shrug.

Luckily for them, the Greeks don't eat much mustard, so the Greek tragedy has not affected sales, according to Reine de Dijon's chief executive, Luc Vandermaesen.

Profit margins have fallen though, and with many of their mustard seeds coming from Canada, the volatility of the euro against the dollar is affecting their planning.

And now - with the Greek referendum threat - there is an added fear that the euro could collapse.

Image caption Views on the merits of the euro vary at the Reine de Dijon mustard factory

"Today, I think the chance exists," says Mr Vandermaesen.

"The last decision of Mr Papandreou [the Greek prime minister] is bringing turmoil to the markets. I think everyone should do their best to keep the euro going.

"A Europe of individual countries [outside the euro] has very little chance to survive against the US and China," he adds.

'Radical change'

The old city centre of Dijon is a maze of twisting narrow lanes. Light blue shutters frame the windows. Footsteps echo outside the central church.

It's a world away from the turmoil in Greece, the emergency meetings on the sidelines of the G20 summit, the panic in the markets.

Yet even here, people are nervous. There is a real sense that Europe is fast approaching a pivotal moment.

Down one of the lanes, there's a flat for sale - in fact there are more than usual these days.

One of Dijon's estate agents, Catherine Vandriesse, shows a chart of house prices going back to 2006. They rose sharply until the 2008 crisis, then fell off a cliff, and since have recovered only slowly.

Now sales are falling off again.

With French banks having to strengthen their reserves as a buffer against sovereign debt, borrowing rates have risen.

Add to that the fact that the economic crisis has fuelled a "confidence crisis". People are reluctant to buy.

Still, Ms Vandriesse believes some good can come of Europe's economic woes.

"It's going to force us to radically change our social system and French way of life - which is no longer sustainable. But I hope it's not going to be too painful."

The sun is low in the sky at Dijon railway station.

There is a whistle, then train 6829 heads off towards Cannes - as the world's leaders begin to gather in the southern French port city.

Their G20 summit was supposed to have been a celebration of the deal to contain Europe's debt problem.

Instead the crisis is centre stage in a way no one expected, and across the continent people are wondering whether there is a route out of this mess.