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France's former currency is devalued to zilch

Hundreds line up at the Bank of France in Paris on the last day to convert old francs to euros. Nostalgia and doomsday predictions are in the air.

February 17, 2012|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman exchanges her old French francs for euros at the Bank of France in Paris. A decade after the currency went out of circulation, it has officially become worthless.
A woman exchanges her old French francs for euros at the Bank of France in… (Thibault Camus, Associated…)

Reporting from Paris — Amateur collectors worked the crowd for limited editions, warning against giving away potentially valuable bills. One doomsaying politician called for a return to the discarded currency. And people of all ages waited patiently to turn in their forgotten, worn-out francs.

A decade after being pushed aside by the euro, the franc on Friday officially became a relic.

It was the last day to exchange old currency for euros, and the event attracted hundreds to the Bank of France in Paris, the only location in the capital able to convert the colorful bills.

"A page in our history has turned," said Michel Gagnepain, 63, who got just 10.67 euros for his 70 francs but who had shown up to be part of the historic moment. "I'm glad I came. There's a little folklore that comes with being here. After this, it's over."

Like many others waiting for fresh euros, Gagnepain had kept a few francs at home as keepsakes after they were no longer accepted as legal tender in stores.

By Saturday, most of the estimated $723 million worth of francs remaining in the world will be nothing more than pretty pieces of paper, monetarily speaking.

But to many of those who huddled in the drizzle Friday, the old bills printed with portraits of French figures such as painter Paul Cezanne and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery represented a lot more: the memory of a less anxious time, one that existed before their Eurozone troubles.

"Francs remind me of the good old days, back when you were young, and went out with 100 francs and you felt rich, happy! Today, 100 euros is nothing," said Patrick Berdah, 46, who was waving euros in the air, hoping to buy some old bills from the crowd and frame them for his children.

"With the euro, that's when the problems started and prices increased," he said of the currency transition. "I would have preferred staying with the franc. The bills are so much prettier!"

Another collector warned those standing in line against converting 20-franc bills from 1989, because they could be worth hundreds. He showed the crowd pictures from his book about collecting, including some old pieces of his own.

Few expect a return to the franc, or to be able to use their old bills again (even if several elderly women said they still calculated in francs when they shopped). But many grumbled about the future of the euro in light of Europe's debt crisis.

"It's impossible for us to go back to the franc, even if the euro ends up being worth absolutely nothing," said Danielle Bobier, 66.

German-born Robert, 51, an economist who did not want to give his last name, wasn't optimistic about the continent's shared currency. He said he was prepared for the possibility of Greece defaulting on its loans, causing a domino effect in the Eurozone and sparking "one of the worst economic crises we've seen yet."

"I hope they will wake up and get their act together," he said of European leaders. "I think they will. The question is when."

A recent study by the French polling firm Ipsos showed that a growing number of French feel nostalgic about the franc and less confident in the euro. In the poll, 36% said they were in favor of ditching the euro, while 60% wanted to maintain it, a historic low that is about 10 percentage points less than previous months. Of those polled, 44% called the euro a "handicap" in dealing with Europe's debt crisis.

Channeling that trend, conservative presidential candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan used Friday's franc-conversion deadline to protest the euro outside the bank.

"At the moment when the euro trap is closing around the French … the government decided to end the conversion of the franc," he told journalists. The fact that the Germans can still convert their national currency was proof that "the German government has understood the euro has been condemned," he said.

Dupont-Aignan has been pushing for an exit from the Eurozone, and on Friday he held up a 100-franc bill to a journalist from Reuters and warned: "One day, it will be worth something. You'll see."

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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