Une Affaire de Coeur

How do you express your infatuation for a currency if you are French?

September 11, 2000

How do you express your infatuation for a currency if you are French?

The French are generally known around the world for their desire to be different. But, despite reservations early on, the French have fallen head over heels in love with the euro, the common currency for eleven of the EU’s 15 countries. Even though euro notes and coins will not be introduced to the public for another 15 months, no country is doing a better job than France at preparing Europeans for the new currency.

Driving around France this summer, you would have detected signs of this latest French love affair. Sooner or later, you probably would have been stopped at a toll booth along an autoroute. This is where the French directed their latest campaign to sell the euro to the traveling public. After paying the toll, smiling workers handed out hospitality bags containing small containers of fruit juice (as a respite against the terrible heat of the highway) and several brochures explaining the history and institutions of the European Union — and of the still-new currency, the euro.

Bearing titles such as “A euro summer” and “Avec toi, dessinons l’Europe,” the brochures so unabashedly extolled the euro that a weary traveler might momentarily forget about the currency’s inexorable fall against the dollar and the yen. And despite the sometimes fractious debate among European leaders over what to do about the euro, the brochures paint a reassuringly harmonious picture. A Spanish woman in a flamenco dress, a beret-wearing Frenchman and a Fin in winter garb — all happily smile out at the reader.

Even though ordinary EU citizens will not have euro notes and coins in their hands until January 2002, the French decided to help their own citizens, as well as the millions of Europeans vacationing in France, get used to the idea wherever they go in Europe, the euro will be with them. The brochures, written in French, German and English, eagerly remind readers that in 18 months, their francs, marks and lira will be replaced by the euro.

As additional reminders that the euro is coming, most retailers — whether une boucherie or une boulangerie — already display their prices in French francs as well as euros. Few retailers in other parts of the euro zone have bothered with such advance marketing of the euro. Considering how many Britons regard the mere possibility of trading their pounds for euros as a threat to their nationality, what explains the French zeal for paving the way for the euro?

The answer is a little surprising. It has something to do with the euro is, in essence, more ” French” than “Dutch” or “German” or “Italian.” Since the French Revolution in 1789, the nation’s belief system was founded on the principles of “liberté, égalité and fraternité”.

Soon enough, all EU citizens will soon enjoy liberté — as the euro liberates them from the need to calculate exchange rates while on vacation. They will have égalité — with one currency for all. And fraternité? They will have that, too — as they stand united in their frustration at the euro’s falling exchange rate against the strong U.S. dollar.