Hello Again Franc

This article was written the year after the Euro replaced the French Franc as the official currency of France.

French people, like English people below the age of 45, find the idea of Britain's pre-decimal currency absurd: 12 pennies in a shilling, 20 shillings in a pound. How could anyone add together, say, £1 6s 7d and £1 13s 5d? And anyway, why were pounds denoted by a fancy letter L, and pennies by the letter d? The whole thing was obviously a bizarre British imperial folly.
Well the fact is that the British system was once used throughout Europe. It was not because Europe adopted the British system. Rather the British adopted the European one. Pounds, shillings and pence were an attempt at standardisation by Charlemagne some twelve centuries ago. The British were just the last to abandon Charlemagne's system. In the course of some historical research the other day I came across a document dating from the thirteenth century when this area, the Languedoc, was annexed by the King of France. The area was being valued and parcelled out for the king's new feudal vassals, just as England had been for William the Conqueror's friends and followers after 1066. A large village with its surrounding countryside was valued at £5 3s 6d. Our nearest sizeable town was worth £500 7s 3d.
The French have almost completely forgotten their ancient money system, abolished during the French Revolution. Revolutionaries were keen on the decimal system and used it not only for their new money, but also weights and measures. Their system developed into the now familiar metric system. They failed to enforce it as extensively as they had hoped. The ten hour day, ten day week, and ten month year for example never caught on. Even the old system of weights is not quite forgotten. Everyone here refers to half a kilo as a pound (livre). No market stall-holder is ever prosecuted here for selling a livre of tomatoes.
In general, decimalisation was a great success, especially the Franc. The Franc was devalued over a generation ago, one New Franc being worth 100 Old Francs, but people continued to talk in old Francs for large values. They were still doing that in January 2002 when they were obliged to change to Euros. For the first few days after the change over on 1st January there were large queues everywhere as people checked and double-checked their notes and coins. Most shoppers still go out armed with pocket calculators. Most of them know the exchange rate to five decimal places. Old people seem to have a harder time than most, and are particularly against the new currency. Some initially refusing to use it, claiming that they never would, apparently unaware that francs would be withdrawn within a couple of months.
According to the original schedule notes and coins were to be withdrawn in February 2002, and dual pricing in Francs and Euros would end at the beginning of the following year. The notes and coins duly disappeared more or less on schedule. Dual pricing should have disappeared by now, but the schedule has had to be revised under the pressure of popular opinion. Business who had already switched to pricing only in Euros have had to restart labelling prices in Francs as well. Too many people simply do not like the new currency.
It is all reminiscent of the change to decimal currency in Britain in the 1970's. Mostly it has gone smoothly, but there were the same fears about price-rises being slipped past a confused public. For months after the change over newspapers were full of examples of unexpected increases: The worst offenders seem to have been restaurateurs, owners of drinks machines and those who operate motorway tolls. Over the Spanish border a few miles away, the price of bread was reported to have increased by 50%. According to Libération the Vatican increased its prices by 29% for a funeral mass and 16% for a marriage. Other newspapers reported increases in the price of almost everything in Italy, while in Germany prices were reported to have fallen. Vive l'Europe! It will clearly be some while before the confusion is fully resolved.
In everyday conversation many people around here now operate three different systems depending on the value involved. For prices up to around €100 Euros are used. For higher values Francs are used - New Franc that is, except for values of 10,000 New Francs and more which are still quoted in old Francs. It is easy to sympathise with the old lady who echoed the complaint made when Britain decimalised in the 1970s: "I don't know why they don't wait until all us old people are dead before introducing this new money". Great-great-great-great-great grandparents of the present generation must have complained just as bitterly when the Franc swept away their ancient £.s.d. system.
By the way, £1 6s 7d + £1 13s 5d = £3. The L instead of P for pound never seemed odd in France, where a pound was a livre. Nor did the d for a penny, which in France was a denier.

JdeSt-F © 2002,2003,2004,2005  http://www.midi-france.info/ 

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