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Europe’s crisis won’t rob sparkle from Christmas

Even as European governments scramble to save the debt-saddled eurozone, and turn the screw on public spending with dire warnings of hardship to come, the Christmas countdown has begun in earnest in capitals across the continent.

Everywhere the twinkle of street lights, the warm glow of window displays and sweet-smelling Christmas markets are beckoning families to shelve their worries — and those of the economy — for a few weeks.

In the worst-affected parts of Europe the austerity-hit population will have little choice but to make sacrifices, chief among them the beleaguered Greeks.

But a string of studies suggests many Europeans are splashing out: in Germany where a report this week showed consumers shrugging off the crisis, but also in Spain, where the annual festive lottery has had a bumper year — and in France.

With three weeks to go until the big day, turnout was brisk Friday at the giant Toys "R" Us store in La Defense shopping complex on the edge of Paris.

"I don’t give a hoot about the economy — so long as I’ve got money I’m going to spend it on my grandchildren," quipped Tchao-Di Calvi, a 69-year-old retired office worker out shopping with her grown son and wife.

"Yes, I follow the news, but I say let’s wait and see what happens — why worry now?"

Her son Patrick — more of a frugal type — was equally relaxed, even about the prospect of the euro foundering.

"We have a strong currency, the franc. It’s the others, the ones dragging us down, who should be worried."

Next to them, a thirty-something blonde wrestled sticky tape and paper onto an umpteenth toy box.

"I won’t be holding back for the kids at all — and I have 20 of them to treat, when you count all the cousins!" said the young woman, a marketing employee who gave only her first name, Marie.


 "People either cut back, or opt for hedonism"

Of the 15 European countries surveyed in a pan-European study by Deloitte last month, consumers in the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy and Portugal said they were planning to cut their Christmas spending.

But in other parts of Europe, holiday season budgets were set to inch up by 0.3 to 2.2 percent — in France, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg.

In Germany, Finland and Poland families planned to up festive spending by as much as 6.8 percent, according to the study based on interviews with 18,354 people.

"In times of crisis, people either ration themselves, watch every little expense. Or as we have often seen throughout history they opt for hedonism," said the French sociologist and food expert Jean-Pierre Corbeau.

By treating others people feel they are regaining control over their lives, he explained. A way of saying: Europe may be heading for a brick wall, but at least in my home, we are going to be well-fed and contented this Christmas.

That said, among the Paris toy shoppers, some admitted they were reining in the expense for themselves.

Delphine Chambon, a mother of three who runs a cafe in the working-class suburb of Courbevoie, said her family had agreed gifts would be for the children only this year, partly to make things easier for a sister-in-law who lost her job.

"Things are tough," the 38-year-old told AFP. "And people are scared."

"I have no idea if the euro is going to disappear or not. But what worries me is what I see in my cafe, the finger-pointing, people looking for someone to blame — whether it’s the Greeks or others."

A few of those met in La Defense felt their jobs were under threat, like Elizabeth Boyer, an IT manager in the banking sector.

"Of course in my field, there are concerns for jobs," she said. "We still have a big budget for the kids, but for ourselves we are being more careful."

Vanessa and Polo Ferreira were able to treat their two small children this year thanks to Christmas gift vouchers from their employers.

"Without that it would have been two, three gifts at most," said the 29-year-old young woman, as she fed her newborn son.

But the pair didn’t see their situation as linked to the crisis: she is on maternity leave, and they have just bought a house, "so things are a bit tight".

The night before, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a landmark TV appearance, warning the developed world was entering a new economic cycle dominated by debt reduction.

Did they watch the president’s speech?

"No — we were too busy with the children," said Vanessa.


 AFP/ Emma Charlton/ Expatica