With 'Chunnel' closed, shopper flow dries up French merchants, British hope tunnel will reopen soon

November 25, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CALAIS, France -- At the John Bull Pub inside the Cite Europe shopping mall, a racy British tabloid lies on the bar, egg and chips are on the menu and anxiety fills the air.

Since the Channel Tunnel was virtually shut after a fire Nov. 18, the expected pre-Christmas rush has turned into a bust for the pub and more than 150 other stores and cinemas at the American-style mall perched at the tunnel's mouth.

"We've got no traffic," says Isabelle North, the French-born woman who runs the pub with her English husband. "Normally this mall would be full of people. But now, there's nobody."

And no one is quite sure when the 2-year-old, 32-mile tunnel will fully reopen to car, bus, truck and passenger traffic that is shipped beneath the English Channel via trains from Folkestone in England to Calais. Pending an investigation into the fire that engulfed trucks carried on open-sided wagons, only freight trains will run.

The tunnel's closure has cast a light on the quiet revolution in travel and commerce created by the rail link between England and France.

Old dreams and fears were embodied in the $15 billion project, an engineering tour de force that left the tunnel operator billions of dollars in debt but also in effect created a new border between the two wary nations.

There is a part of the English that yearns to live in splendid island isolation embodied by the old tabloid headline: "Heavy Fog Over Channel, Continent Cut Off."

But the "Chunnel," as it is known, put the Continent a train ride away.

"You know what they say about the British and French, that we're two nations divided by a thousand years of mutual suspicion," says Roger Vickerman, head of the Channel Tunnel monitoring unit at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.

"It's a very short distance across the channel, yet you feel like you've jumped an enormous cultural divide," he says. "But even that is starting to break down."

This month, Sir Alastair Morton, former co-chairman of Eurotunnel PLC, boasted that in 10 or 20 years, the British would look at the tunnel and "wonder how we ever lived without it."

Old-fashioned travel

Suddenly, facing life temporarily without the Chunnel, they have been forced to go to France the old-fashioned way, via ferries and planes.

The Chunnel enabled Eurostar trains to beat major airlines on a lucrative, three-hour London-to-Paris run.

Nearly half the car and truck traffic from England to France went via the Chunnel, the 35-minute trip an hour less than the ferry service from the English port of Dover to Calais.

Chunnel traffic brought a new rail station and real estate development to Lille, a crossroads French city between Brussels, Belgium, and Paris.

Ashford in England also secured a new station, with plans bandied about for further business development. Casino operators have looked into opening gambling halls in Folkestone.

"There hasn't been a substantial amount of local economic activity at either end of the tunnel," Vickerman says. "What the tunnel has done is reinforce the dominance of the big cities of London and Paris and Brussels with businessmen taking the Eurostar."

For Calais, though, the Chunnel helped bring new roads, swift train connections and the cavernous shopping mall -- helping the city carry on its tradition of catering to English day-trippers shopping for cut-rate alcohol and cigarettes.

In the past year, the trip has been refined into something of an art form, with English drivers racing a few hundred yards from the Chunnel to the parking lot of the new Cite Europe mall, which bills itself as "the first shopping center with truly European-wide appeal."

Day-trippers

The English day-trippers can dine on crepes at cafes, stock up on French food at a supermarket that is bigger than a football field, purchase Mickey Mouse items at a Disney Store and load their carts with liquor that is taxed at less than half the British rate.

"I can get 24 bottles of beer here for the price of five back home," says Eddie Fisher of Nottingham, England, who lugs around 10 cases of beer and eight cases of wine.

"The round trip from home to here will take 12 hours, but it's worth it," he says. "I'll be in France for two hours. And I'll get my Christmas shopping done."

For the French, the shopping destination of choice is the cathedral city of Canterbury. The French arrive by busloads and shop for clothing essentials such as socks and underwear, housewares and Christmas decorations.

"Canterbury is like a small London," says Patricia McCandless, who runs the La Champagne shop in the Cite Europe mall.

"The English like to come to France and we like to go to England," she says. "They like to find someone to speak English. But I don't think they're making the effort to learn French. Here, everyone speaks English."

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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