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Sunday, 19 February 2012

As Old Francs Expire, France Makes a Small Mint


Greece may be scrambling for revenue, but the French treasury has just banked some 550 million euros for doing nothing — simply letting the French franc, created in 1360, finally perish. Enlarge This Image Thibault Camus/Associated Press People lined up at a bank in Paris on Friday to convert old French francs to euros, the common European currency, before the francs were rendered worthless. Connect With Us on Twitter Follow @nytimesworld for international breaking news and headlines. Twitter List: Reporters and Editors Friday was the last day that French francs could be turned into the Bank of France, the central bank, in exchange for the common European currency, the euro, a little more than a decade after it was introduced as bills and coins. The approximately 550 million euros represents the francs still outstanding, somewhere, which are now worthless, and which will be registered as revenue for the French state. As the franc died, it is the future of the euro that seems at question now, an irony that hardly escaped some of those waiting in line at the bank to exchange the francs they had found stashed away in drawers, coat pockets and old purses. (Only bills were exchangeable; coins went out of circulation in 2005.) Emmanuelle Hamon, 47, said she was dubious about the fate of the euro. “I want to believe in it,” she said. “But I don’t know how, concretely, we’re going to make it.” A former advertising executive and journalist, she said she felt a bit betrayed, as if Europeans had been handed a bill of goods, now that floundering countries like Greece are causing troubles for the entire euro zone. “I was attracted to the notion of community,” she said. “We were all hoodwinked.” And like many, she believes that the euro brought with it higher prices. She had found 220 francs, or 33.54 euros at the fixed rate of 6.55957 francs to the euro. She is planning to give her bonus euros to a charity that fights hunger, she said. As for the franc itself, she said she had no special sentiments. “I thought they were pretty, that’s all I can say.” For some it was a sad day, to be sure. As Ms. Hamon noted, the franc notes and coins were varied and beautiful. The euro, on the other hand, seems like the product of an off-day at the design studio, made worse by the fact that the bills feature no recognizable buildings or portraits. The theory behind keeping some images off was that any European — even Beethoven, whose music was used for the European Union anthem — would be too national. Aurélien Duchene, an 18-year-old student, said that he liked the idea of the euro as a way to gather countries together, but that it meant prices went up. Pulling his earphones out to hear questions, he remembered that when he was 8 or 9 years old and the currency changed, he said, “For one franc you got a big bag of candy, and for one euro, one got less.” The current economic crisis had various causes, Mr. Duchene said. “But I think that changing from the franc to the euro is also a cause.” (Indeed, fixed rates and the common currency have meant countries cannot adjust the value of their currency in response to differing economic circumstances.) Shanel Maklouf, 17, said earnestly, while her friends giggled, that the euro had been “very bad for France,” and had helped cause its economic difficulties, “which grow day by day.” Going back to the franc is impossible, she said, “even if it would be a good thing,” especially for the poorer classes. “My mother waits for only one thing, that the franc returns.” The far-right National Front candidate in the coming presidential election, Marine Le Pen, is the only significant politician calling for France to pull out of the euro zone — and the European Union — and return to the franc. More mainstream politicians and economists regard the idea as folly, even as some Greeks begin to consider returning to the drachma. The Greeks, by the way, have until March 1 to switch their old drachmas into euros. Tania Capo-Chichi, 30, is a hairstylist, currently unemployed. She waited in line at the bank with her 5-month-old son in a stroller and a small windfall — 1,000 francs, worth 152.45 euros — she found digging through various bags, she said. She had no attachment to the old franc, but no idea how the current euro crisis, which she said no one was really explaining to people, would end. “It won’t come to a stop overnight,” she said. But she was sure the euro would endure, one way or another, as Europe evolves. “It’s ours,” she said, “even if we don’t necessarily like it.

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