Lombardy's funny money is no longer a joke

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Thousands of copper coins emblazoned 'Free Lombardy - Republic of the North', supposedly meant as a joke, are circulating in parts of northern Italy as a substitute currency, writes Patricia Clough. And with the lira teetering perilously on the brink of devaluation and the country in a state of political and economic upheaval, the authorities are not amused.

The dark-coloured coins were 'minted' by the Northern League - the Lombardy-based reform movement which says it wants hardworking, efficient northern Italy to split away from the supposedly spendthrift south, and which is now the fourth-biggest party in parliament.

The 'currency' is called the 'lega' (league) and on the head side, set against the outline of Lombardy is the figure of Alberto da Guissano, the 12th-century hero of Milan's struggle against the Holy Roman Empire, brandishing his sword.

The League 'values' the lega at 1,000 lire, or just under 50p - a dig at the lira, which only exists accompanied by strings of noughts and which makes anyone with the equivalent of pounds 500 a millionaire. The lega comes in two denominations, one and five.

The lega was devised as a gimmick - or so its authors claim - for a three-day festival of the League last month in Brescia, where they are the biggest party. Sold by the thousand at a booth marked 'Change - Republic of Lombardy', they were intended as tokens to buy pizzas, T-shirts or buttons or to keep as souvenirs.

But the coins have taken on a life of their own, and shops, kiosks and supermarkets around Brescia are reportedly accepting them as valid currency. 'I bought some aftershave,' said Francesco Tabladini, a League senator. 'I paid in leghe - five - and they gave me change in Italian lire.'

Of course it is all highly illegal, and local shops are denying it as innocently as League leaders are insisting they had no intention of circulating a parallel currency. 'If we did issue our own currency we would peg it to the German mark, not the lira,' one declared.

Alberto Maggi, head of the state printing office which is responsible for issuing money, has warned: 'If these tokens are expressly called money, the public prosecutors will move in.' Questions are being tabled in parliament, while a former finance minister, Francesco Forte, called the episode 'very worrying'.

But the League, which has declared 'fiscal guerrilla warfare' in a tax rebellion against the state, is delighted. Its leader, Umberto Bossi, jokes: 'Next time, we will print our own passports.'