30 November 2011

The French franc

The French franc — le franc français — still exists in a couple of ways, even though you don't see the coins and bills any more. If you look at certain currency exchange rate sites on the 'net, you'll see the French franc still listed. I checked this morning, and the U.S. dollar is trading at 4.92 FF today. The currency is designated as obsolete, replaced by the euro. But there it is.

The franc still exists on price tags all around France. So that older people, who had spent many decades buying, selling, earning and counting francs on an everyday basis, wouldn't get confused about prices, merchants have been required to post prices in francs alongside prices in euros for the past 10 years. Euro coins and banknotes became the legal tender in France in January 2002.

An old 20-centime coin, worth about a nickel
back in the 1970s

As for the franc, it became the only legal tender in France in 1795, during the Revolution, and remained so until 1998. At that point it was declared a division of the new euro. The official value of the euro in France is 6.56 francs. It was only on January 1, 2002, that euro coins and banknotes started to be circulated in France and the franc disappeared as legal tender.

During World War II, French coins carried the fascist
slogan "Work, Family, Country", which replaced the
revolutionary « Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité »

My memories don't go back to the 18th century, but I do remember having to learn about francs more than 40 years ago, when I was a student in Aix-en-Provence in the spring of 1970. In those days, I didn't have a lot of francs — or dollars either — so every one counted. The dollar that spring was trading at about 5.50 FF. All through the 70s, until the Carter years in the U.S. late in the decade, the dollar-franc rate stayed approximately the same.

In the late '70s, however, the dollar declined and fell to between 4 and 4.5 francs. Then, a few years later, France elected its first socialist president in many decades — François Mitterrand in 1981 — and he appointed communists to important ministries in his government. International financial and currency markets spooked, and for a while the dollar was worth as much as 10 francs.

Voltaire on a 10 FF coin of the 1990s

The same kind of thing happened when the euro first came into circulation. There was a lot of doubt about its stability and its future. Besides, the U.S. under Bill Clinton had been running budget surpluses and the American economy was "a rising tide lifting all boats" — too bad that didn't last. The dollar was worth more than 1.15 euros for a while there, which meant it was worth between 7.5 and 8.0 FF. It was good to have dollars in those days.

By the time Walt and I moved to Saint-Aignan in June 2003, the U.S. dollar was worth only about 90 to 92 eurocents — that was still more than six francs. The euro started its big move upward, and the dollar moved down because, I guess, budget deficits were so high under the George W. Bush administration in Washington. At its low point five years ago, the dollar was worth only about 62 eurocents, or four francs, as back in the late 1970s.

Several of the franc coins carried this image called La Semeuse
"the sower". The same figure appears on French euro coins now.

The French franc I'm talking about here is what was called « le nouveau franc » back in the 1970s. That's because the French economy had suffered such high inflation in the 1950s that the old franc became fairly worthless. In1960, newly elected president Charles de Gaulle enacted a reform under which the old franc became a centime, and 100 old francs became one new franc.

General De Gaulle on another 1990s-era 10 FF coin

For several decades, people in France continued to think and talk in terms of old francs. One franc in slang was « cent balles » — 100 "bullets", I guess, coins being made of metal as bullets are, as well as being round like a ball. Ten francs was « mille balles » — mille means a thousand. Early in the decade, a beggar on the sidewalk in Paris would ask you for « 100 balles ». By 1980, more often you'd hear beggars asking for « un franc ».

Ten thousand francs — an astonomical sum for many of us back in the 1970s — was « un million d'anciens francs ». Or « un million de centimes ». Or just « un million », also known as « une brique ». For us Americans, « un million » in francs was about two thousand dollars, and if you could earn that much per month, or if you had that much money in the bank, you were quite prosperous. You could buy a new car for a couple of "bricks".

The 5 FF coin was the closest equivalent of the U.S. dollar

French people have a very different relationship with their money compared to Americans. It's hard to imagine the American population dealing with all this messing around with the national currency. Re-value the dollar so that a dollar is suddenly a cent, a $100 bill is suddenly $1.00, and $1000 is just $10? Or abandon the dollar altogether for some other currency? Can you imagine?


  1. Thanks for the recap on currency. It's on everyone's mind these days as they worry over the euro. So, the FFR/$ rate would be 4.92. Well, considering that for so long, we hovered around 5, I would say it's "normal". Thing is, it's artificially "normal". If we were to go back to Francs, Marks, Lira, etc. The Franc would be devalued, maybe 6 or 7 Francs for a $1, the Lira would be in even worse shape, while the DMark would be higher. Then you would start looking at the US deficit and loans and re-evaluate and the $ would fall, so we'd end up where we started!

  2. LOL, Ellen. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, n'est-ce pas ?

  3. Thanks for this post- I love the coin photos, especially the sower one.

    My first experience with francs was in 1961 and the old francs were new ones like you described so well. I remember the 1 franc coin had 100 francs on it. It was confusing for me, but I was only 15 at the time and life is perplexing for most 15 year olds.

    I hope the euro lasts, so much money is lost in exchange, unless you are the money changer;)

  4. This a great post, Ken. Like
    Evelyn I loved all the photos.
    You're right, imagine if the
    US were to change to an
    entirely new currency melding
    Mexico, Canada and the US. What
    a hue and cry there would be.

  5. 10 francs to the dollar. I remember it well. I stayed at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco that summer. Something I could never have afforded otherwise.

    I think they need to bring that exchange rate back.

  6. I, too, visited Paris when the exchange rate was about 10 Francs to the dollar... I paid the equivalent of about $10 for a hotel room (a tiny one with a skinny bed and a pullout sink thingy, but it was in a nice neighborhood, as I recall!)

  7. Thanks for the close-ups of french francs, Ken. I am going to forward those to my daughter, perhaps she can use them in her french classes.

    Mary in Oregon


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