Short-Lived French Coin Is a Dealer's Delight

Times Staff Writer

Dealers at the coin market just off the Avenue des Champs Elysees are hoarding France's new 10-franc coins these days in hopes of making a neat profit out of an incredible error of judgment by French bureaucrats.

With a good deal of fanfare, the French government released the new 10-franc coin (worth a little more than $1.50) on Oct. 22. The public looked at it, weighed it and began confusing it so quickly with the half-franc coin (worth only 8 cents) that a crescendo of fury and ridicule fell on both the government and the coin.

Five weeks later, Minister of Finance Edouard Balladur suspended circulation of the coin. Within another four weeks, he canceled it altogether. The French have until the end of next June to exchange the new coins for old 10-franc coins. After that, the new ones are, from a legal point of view, worthless.

Coin dealers hope that most are turned in to the government and destroyed. That will enhance the numismatic value of those left in the hands of dealers. The coins, by the end of June, will have been legal for eight months--not much of a life for a coin, but enough for a place in catalogues and collections.

Like Anthony Dollar

To some extent, the problem of the new 10-franc coin resembles that of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which was roundly rejected by the American public after it was issued in 1979. But the American dollar, although unpopular and no longer minted, is still in circulation.

In retrospect, the French decision seems so foolish that it is hard to fathom how it was made. The error, however, must be shared by politicians of both the left and right. Plans for the new coin were conceived under a Socialist government. A conservative government then endorsed the idea and minted the coin.

French officials had been concerned for a number of years about their old 10-franc coin--a large, heavy, copper-colored coin made of a copper alloy and featuring a prize-winning design in an industrial motif by artist Georges Mathieu. The coin has been minted since 1974.

But it has caused problems. As coins go, its weight--10 grams, or one-third ounce--was a bit heavy for pockets. It did not work easily in vending machines. And, perhaps most important, its copper color and base made it relatively easy to counterfeit.

So the Ministry of Finance asked the French Mint to design a new coin. After much study, designers came up with a silver-colored coin made of nickel and featuring a modernistic drawing by artist Joaquim Jimenez of a Gallic rooster on one side and of Marianne, the female symbol of the French republic, on the other. The coin was light, sported special ridges on its rim for easy reading by electronic vending machines and seemed tough to counterfeit.

Excited by Creation

But the designers and bureaucrats were obviously so excited by their creation that they ignored or refused to accept the new coin's similarity to the hundreds of millions of silver-colored, nickel-based half-franc coins in circulation.

Although the designs of the two coins were far different--a traditional Marianne on the half-franc, for example, and a modernistic Marianne on the 10-franc--their size and weight were perilously similar. The new 10-franc coin had a circumference of 21 millimeters, or eight-tenths of an inch, while the half-franc coin had a circumference of 19.5 millimeters, or seven and a half-tenths of an inch. The new 10-franc coin weighed 6.5 grams, or between one-fifth and one-quarter ounce, while the half-franc coin weighed 4.5 grams, or one-sixth ounce.

By November, the mint had struck 90 million of the new coins and planned to produce another 20 million by the end of the year. A million of the coins were put into circulation.

Immediate Outrage

But the outrage was immediate. Customers thought shopkeepers were shortchanging them. At nightfall, a Frenchman would invariably discover that he had handed out a 10-franc coin for a half-franc coin at some time during the day.

"It's a scandal," a taxi driver was quoted in the French press. "If anyone gives me one, I will get rid of it." A shopkeeper said sarcastically, "The new coin proves that money isn't worth anything any more." An opposition member of Parliament demanded that the government cancel the coin.

Bureaucrats bravely insisted that the French would soon become accustomed to the new coin, but the outcries drowned out the assurances. Minister of Finance Balladur suspended use of the coin on Nov. 26 while he and his aides wrestled with the problem.

They decided that there were three choices: punching a hole in the new 10-franc coin to make it distinctive, withdrawing all the half-franc coins or canceling the new coin. The last option was the cheapest--although it meant a loss of 100 million francs ($15 million)--and Balladur took it on Dec. 19.

It is not clear where the French government goes from here. But Balladur, while canceling the new coin, promised that he will begin "a reflection on the whole gamut of the country's coins with the aim of adapting them to the needs of the public and the economy."

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