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coins of the month - december 2015
The coinage of the French Revolution: the birth of the franc (1795-1803)
After the fall of Robespierre and his supporters in July 1794, the National Convention continued its mandate until the end of 1795, directed by a new majority of former Jacobins and centrists, reintegrating the survivors of the Girondins faction. The financial situation worsened despite the end of the managed economy. The Maximum general, introduced to control price increases, was lifted in December 1794, the economy was partially liberalized and hyperinflation developed in parallel with famine. The production of assignats (government paper) was rapidly increased at the beginning of 1795, and covered more than 90% of the expenditure of the State.
A monetary restoration and stabilization were clearly necessary and the creation of a new monetary standard was essential, even before the assignats were withdrawn from circulation in May 1796, when 1 livre in metal was worth 500 livres in depreciated paper assignats. Hoarded coinage resurfaced with economic freedom and the withdrawal of paper. However it was only the military conquests of the French revolutionary armies, especially in Italy from 1796 onwards, that produced the resources in silver and gold needed to restore an adequate metallic circulation.
In the meantime the Convention had adopted further temporary monetary reform, first deciding on the decimalization of the old unit (the livre, previously divided in 20 sous and 240 deniers). Here illustrated is a trial piece of 10 centimes, an 3, where a snake (symbol of prudence) unites a fascio (symbol of unity) together with Hercules’ mace (symbol of force).
The Convention finally decided on 15 August 1795, shortly before disbanding for new elections, to adopt a new decimal currency, based on a gold coin of 10 grams and a silver franc coin of 5 grams, divided in 10 décimes and 100 centimes in copper.
The name franc was resuscitated from a gold piece briefly minted in the 14th century and a silver one also briefly minted in the 16th century. The name had however survived as a nickname for the livre until the French Revolution. Indeed the new franc was a livre renamed, whose weight had been increased by a mere 1,25% (3 deniers per franc), in order to make it compatible with a round number in the new decimal unit of weight, the gram, which had replaced grains, gros and onces. The continuity between the old and the new system was confirmed by the fact that old sous were legally allowed to circulate at the value of 5 new centimes, together with their subdivisions and multiples, ignoring the minimal difference in weight. Between 1795 and 1803 the only new silver coin to be minted was a five francs piece, while the complete series of copper pieces (1 centime, 5 centimes, 1 décime, 2 décimes) was minted copiously.
Those latter pieces were initially minted at 1 gram of copper for every centime, but there were many complaints that the real value of the rounded weight was so significantly below its nominal value as to become an illegitimate tax. On October 1796, therefore, a new law increased the weight to two grams of copper per centime, recalling the coins recently minted to countermark them with a new value reduced to half of their initial nominal value (the 2 décimes coin became un décime through cancellation of the “s” and the “2”, replaced by “un”, as in the coin here illustrated).
The gold coin imagined in 1795 was left nameless (it was sometimes referred to as a decagram) and without a fixed value in relation to the silver franc, thereby creating a separate parallel and independent standard. It was never implemented and no gold coinage was minted in France between 1793 and 1803, creating a de facto silver standard.
The silver piece of 1795 symbolized a shift of political priorities. The female allegories of liberty, carrying a pike with the Phrygian cap, and equality, carrying a level, are brought together and protected by a gigantic Hercules, symbol of the strength of the French people. The motto is indeed “Union et force”. Augustin Dupré, graveur general de la monnaie, is the author. The success of this image was such that it represented French coinage during the first republic (1795-1803), the second republic (1848), the third republic (1870-78) and was also used for various celebratory coins during the twentieth century.
The copper pieces introduced a type of figure that has been at the centre of French republican coinage ever since, a female profile representing liberty and wearing a red cap, also known as the Phrygian cap. Such a figure was not yet identified with the name of Marianne, with whom the iconography of the republic was identified only from the second republic (1848) onwards. It was rumoured at the time that the model who posed for the engraver Dupré was Juliette Récamier, a young woman of great beauty, at the centre of the life of the Parisian literary and political salons during the Diréctoire and afterwards, but it is not proved and the coin was engraved when she was only 18 years old and still little known.
The stabilization of the French currency was in fact much slower than the law of 1795 might suggest and many different types of coinage continued to circulate alongside the newly minted ones. An important step was the creation of the Bank of France in 1800, decided by Bonaparte, then First Consul of the Republic, who opted for a Governor of the Bank appointed by the Government but a governing council composed of private shareholders, in order to protect the independence of the Bank, up to a point.
The final element was the creation in 1803, the eleventh year of the republic, of the franc germinal. The franc system of 1795 was confirmed, simplified, completed and entirely implemented. The décime was replaced by 10 centimes, a wider variety of small silver coins was introduced and the relationship between gold and silver coinage was clarified with the introduction of gold coins of 20 and 40 francs. The new gold piece had an unpleasant weight of 6.45 grams, far from the elegantly decimal number ten, but this meant that a 15.5 to 1 relation between silver and gold coins was introduced by law and bimetallism was fully implemented, despite the apparent unawareness of most of the protagonists in the parliamentary debates of the time. We have here illustrated the first 5 francs coin minted under the new system, where the profile of Napoleon Bonaparte replaced the symbols of the Revolution. So much searching for the new image of the republic had come to a conclusion, for a time, with the reversion to old monarchical practice.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics