December 12, 2001
A Fond Adieu to the French Franc
By SPARKLE HAYTER
ARIS -- Sometimes in Paris one has the feeling of having wandered into a magical city in a parallel universe. One drinks wine without getting drunk and eats fatty foods without gaining weight. Tell a man in Paris you're a writer, and it's like telling a man in the States you're a model. The little lamplit cobblestone streets sound like lanes in a fairy tale: Rue Git-le-Coeur (Here Lies the Heart Street), Rue du Chat Qui Pêche (Street of the Cat Who Fishes), Rue des Mauvais Garçons (Bad Boys' Street). And the money seems like fairyland money.
Unlike the notes from most countries, which honor sober-looking politicians, generals and monarchs, most of the colorful French franc notes commemorate people like Paul Cézanne, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Gustave Eiffel — historical figures who left their mark through culture, art and knowledge, rather than through political power.
The note in each denomination is decorated with both the honored person's face and a representation of his or her work. On the flip side of the 100-franc Cézanne note, for example, is a reproduction of "Apples and Biscuits," and on the 500-franc Curie note is a picture of a laboratory and beakers. Each illustration is finely detailed: The Curie note has drawings of an X-ray van used in World War I and background colors representing rays from substances the Curies worked with.
Sadly, after this Christmas season these pieces of spendable art will be consigned to oblivion. On Jan. 1, France will join 11 other European countries in adopting a uniform currency, the very generic euro. Final designs for the currency were adopted at the European Council meeting in 1997, and the notes look like money designed by a committee of bankers. The colors are unappealing, and drawings on the notes, intended to symbolize Europe's architectural heritage, are not renderings of existing structures, but composites.
I wish the powers that be had let each country design its own versions of the euro notes, so the single currency would reflect the distinct cultures of each participating country. Instead, this sort of distinctive marking has been relegated to the flip sides of the euro coins.
Though the transition has taken place slowly over the last few years, it will still feel like a shock when, in 2002, the euro at last eclipses the franc, ending a long and storied history. The first French franc was issued in 1360, a gold coin depicting a Frankish king (John II) on a horse. In 1799 the franc was made the official monetary unit of post-revolutionary France, and early coins carried depictions of Hercules, Liberty and Equality. Paper money, of course, allows for more expansive expression. In the first half of the 20th century, working men and women were often pictured on the paper currency. It was in the 1950's that artists and scientists became popular subjects on the paper notes. Among those who have been commemorated are Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, Molière, Pascal and Claude Debussy.
The note I will miss most is the bright blue 50-franc note, with Antoine de St.-Exupéry on one side and on the other his wide-eyed loner in search of love, the Little Prince. In one corner is the drawing from the book of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. One of the special anti-counterfeit marks on the bill is a shiny white patch. If you tilt it under a light, you can see the Little Prince's sheep.
Only a child, or someone with a sense of childlike love, would design money like this. It's not only beautiful; it makes a statement: We French know what is really valuable. It's a message that deserves to be spread, but that will be a little harder to do after it loses its most subversive vehicle, the French franc.
Sparkle Hayter is the author of "The Last Manly Man," a novel.