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French try a novel vacation - staying in France

''My friend and I were planning to go to Thailand this year,'' said Corine, an employee in the Ministry of Finance. ''But with the currency restrictions, we had to cancel our trip. This year we're staying in France.''

August is the traditional migratory month, when millions of Frenchmen pull down the shutters of their shops, hang a sign saying ''Back September first,'' and take off for distant parts. For many it is the high point of the year and the culmination of months of planning and discussion.

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But this year, French austerity measures and currency limitations are altering vacation habits. More French are staying at home and taking shorter vacations.

According to a poll conducted by the French Ministry of Tourism, 1.3 million Frenchmen who would otherwise have gone abroad this year are staying at home. Many have been deterred by the $256 limit on the amount of foreign currency each person is allowed to take out of the country.

As many French see it, the Socialist government has attacked one of their most sacred institutions.

''Last year I went to Israel for a month with my family,'' said Roger Yomtov, who owns a stationery store. ''This year I can't leave because of the 2,000 -franc ($256) limit. I think it's an attack on our freedom. People who work for 11 months have a right to leave for just a month. We don't live in a democracy anymore.''

French tourist agencies predict a 20 to 30 percent drop in business this year. ''This is not the year of discovery,'' said a Paris travel agent. ''People aren't taking the long trips to the United States or Indonesia.''

Many foreign tourism offices are trying to adjust to the new situation by offering package tours entirely prepaid in France.

''Vacations in Bulgaria are still possible within the limits of your authorized currency,'' proclaims a sign on the Bulgarian tourist office.

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At first France's Club Mediterranee, which offers prepaid vacations, benefited from the currency restrictions. ''We had a rush of people sign up,'' Constance Nora, a Club Med official, said. ''But then it stabilized. We've actually had a slight slowdown this year because we didn't increase our overall registration as we usually do.''

In spite of the regulations, some French have devised complicated schemes to go abroad. ''My husband and I are going to India for a month,'' a young woman said. How are they getting around the currency limitations? ''My husband's family lives in Germany. They are wiring money to us in India, and we will reimburse them when they come to France.''

Those who find it easiest to travel are French businessmen who can use company credit cards to finance vacations abroad. ''I have a house in Geneva where I stay with my family,'' an executive said. ''I use the company credit card and have no problem.''

But it is not just the 12 percent of the French who customarily travel abroad each summer who have been hit by the austerity measures announced last March.

Many of those who ordinarily stay at home say they must spend less on their vacations this year because of the 10 percent levy on income and 1 percent surcharge included in the austerity package.

''Last year I went to the Vendee,'' said Gerard Dolle, a bank officer at Credit Lyonnais. ''This year I'm staying at home. With the added taxes I have less financial resources. My wife is also working half-time now, so that has cut into our income.''

Traditional vacation spots such as the Cote d'Azur and Brittany have had a drop in tourism, says the National Agency for Tourist Information. ''It's more expensive and people are afraid it will be too crowded,'' said the agency's Jacques Revel.

But cheaper, less-fashionable vacation spots like the Atlantic coast from Biarritz to Bordeaux, the Ardennes, and Alsace are experiencing an upsurge in tourism.

Also in place of the traditional vacation this year, thousands of French are taking short summer courses in everything from tennis to belly-dancing and astronomy.

Those who seem to have profited most from France's vacations are American tourists, who are taking advantage of the favorable exchange rate. French tourism officials say American tourism in France may increase by as much as 40 percent this year over last.

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