AS I write, I am staring at the Money Bunny.
It is a brown and hairless old thing, rubbed smooth over the years, and it stares back at me with one plastic eye slightly popped. The bunny is fairly bursting. When I return from foreign trips, I empty my pockets into it, through the slot on its back. Before leaving again, however, I never remember to extract the appropriate currency. The bunny thus has a cash-flow problem.
I decide to pull the little plastic plug from its bottom. A thick bolus of British sterling stanches the flow at first, solid and heavy, each coin bearing the crowned profile of Elizabeth––as a young woman on the oldest ones, later as a handsome matron, but always and ever the Queen. German marks come next, and German eagles, strangely atavistic in a nation that today is so pacifist: on the 5-mark piece, the raptor’s feathers and claws are splayed and its tongue is sticking out, as if it were about to kill or had just been electrocuted. Either way it looks severe. A 25-peseta coin from Spain follows the marks; it has a hole in its center. The 5-peseta coin shows a costumed man who is either stomping grapes in the Rioja or dancing on stilts, it is hard to tell which.
And then there is the Semeuse—the sower—who adorns the French franc. Her long hair is blowing from beneath her Phrygian bonnet (a Revolutionary symbol of emancipation); her dress clings in gauzy folds to her long, graceful legs. She is walking across a times 11 countries) circulating in Euroland. In the case of euro bills, however, which will be issued by the central bank of each country under the orders of the new European Central Bank in Frankfurt, the Eurocrats’ and bankers’ concerns carried the day. There will be no national symbols on the bills: they will be identical throughout Euroland. field at sunrise, and with a careless wave of her right hand she is scattering seed from a bag held in her left—she is scattering it into the wind, which seems significant somehow. Perhaps it’s just that I’m a Francophile, but to me the franc is the perfect coin. It doesn’t commemorate a fossilized monarchy or a warlike past; it celebrates life, and what life here in France is supposed to be: sensual, dignified, humanistic. I once inadvertently tried to slip 10 pesetas to Annique, the young woman in the bakery who hands me my baguette every morning. She spotted it almost before the tinny little thing clinked into the dish on her counter.
People have a feeling for their money. You know what a nickel, dime, or quarter feels like in your pocket, and what many of them feel like in your bank account; Annique knows a peseta from a franc, by sight, sound, and touch. Not long ago I asked her what she thinks of the euro, the new European currency that will soon supplant the franc and other national currencies—electronic transactions in euros begin January 1, and the new coins and bills will follow three years later. She did not feel like talking about it. “It will be hell”, she said. (…)
Fear of fraud was one reason the European Commission wanted the coins to look the same in every country—the greater the number of different coins, the harder it is to recognize a phony. Fear of public reaction led the national governments to reject this idea. Each coin will have a European face (tails) and a national face (heads). Beginning in 2002 there will thus be 88 different coins ( 8 denominations or the Brandenburg Gate. They are generic representations of a common European patrimony, all nation specificity expunged.
The idea of decorating them with portraits of great men and women, that staple of banknotes everywhere was rejected for fear of inciting nationalist sentiment. “The history of the continent being one of almost uninterrupted conflict, it proved difficult to achieve consensus on historical figures,” Yves-Thibault de Silguy, the European Commissioner responsible for the euro, explains in a primer on the subject. The central bankers opted instead for architecture through the ages. Each of the seven euro bills illustrates an epoch, from classical through Gothic to modern, with recurring motifs: on the back there is always a bridge (to the future, from one country to another), and on the front there is a window (open onto the world) or an arc (ditto). None of these are real structures—the Pont du Gard, say,
Beginning in 2002, then, coins will become like a chemical dye that traces the ebb and flow of people through Euroland. Here in France you will one day find an electrocuted eagle in your pocket and know that a German tourist has been near. There will surely be a lot of Dutch Queen Beatrixes as well, and maybe even a Juan Carlos or two. Two centuries after guillotining Louis XVI, the French will once again be buying bread with coins that bear the likenesses of sovereigns, and foreign ones at that.
The Paris mint predicts, though, that the huge majority of coins here will remain reassuringly French and Republican—and beautiful. “Our first challenge was to make the coins beautiful,” says Constans. (…)
D I S C O V E R
O C T O B E R 1998
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