French say adieu to the franc

 

Six centuries after the first one was minted and a decade after they went out of circulation, the last French francs are being exchanged for euros.

The Banque de France set a deadline of the close of business Friday for French savers to exchange whatever leftover franc notes they've kept socked away in drawers or under mattresses, whether held onto intentionally as souvenirs or simply forgotten about.

The euro replaced the franc in wallets and purses in January 2002, but the central bank has continued to accept francs in exchange for euros — until late Friday.

A decade might seem to have been enough time to get to the bank, even for the worst procrastinators. But lines of last-minute holdouts still formed all week long outside Banque de France branches, the last place where francs can be swapped for the new currency at the rate of 6.55957 francs for 1 euro — the exchange rate that was locked in when France joined the euro in 1999.

The French press has been filled with reminders about the looming deadline, after which all those blue 20-franc bills with the cartoon drawing of The Little Prince standing alone on his planet will lose all but their sentimental value.

Some people heard about the deadline just in time.

"They were in a drawer and I found them a few days ago, and when I heard this morning that today was the last day to turn them in, I came this morning to do it," said Rene Huot, as he waited in line at a Banque de France branch on Paris' Left Bank.

The central bank estimates that even after Friday's deadline, around half a billion euros worth of old franc notes will remain in the wild, unexchanged and henceforth worthless.

The existence of the euro, used by over 330 million people in 17 countries, has come into doubt recently as European governments failed to prevent the financial crisis from widening from Greece to Italy and even France. The French and German leaders' shock admission in November that Greece might leave the euro only added to those concerns.

France is the second eurozone country to definitevely phase out its old currency, after Italy stopped exchanging the lire in December. Finns have until the end of this month to turn in their last markkaa, while the Dutch get to hang onto their old guilders until 2032.

About half the eurozone countries have set no time limit at all.

Greeks have until March 1 to exchange their drachmas — if the country hasn't switched back to historic currency by then.

Eurozone ministers are due to meet Monday to decide on a new $130 billion bailout Greece needs if it hopes to avoid becoming the first eurozone member to default on its debts and be ejected from Europe's common currency.

While few Europeans are prepared to scrap the euro — in part because they fear a chaotic collapse more than the current muddle — some are nostalgic for the money they counted on before it arrived.

"We are living a lot less well with the euro, especially when we have a modest salary and a small pension and by God we are really obliged to maintan a tight budget," said Micheline Leblanc, a retiree who was also changing her last francs at the Banque de France.

AP

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