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My Web of Words — 7 – Franc

The word ‘franc’ carries so many different meanings that I must clarify at the outset that this article addresses its pecuniary sense only; and in fact, to narrow it down even further, it is about the franc I knew in my childhood, a coin long gone now, and for which I feel a certain nostalgia. I am not talking about the French franc or Belgian franc, both of which I discovered at the age of 15 during my first trip to Europe, and for which I felt little regret when they made way for the Euro. No, the coin for which I feel wistful was a little known, clandestine franc that disappeared without fanfare: the Lebanese franc.

What we called a ‘franc’ in Lebanon was actually a five-piastre coin, the smallest unit of currency in circulation during my childhood. Why ‘franc’? Because the Lebanese pound, the national currency created during the French Mandate in Lebanon and Syria, was pegged at 20 French francs; since the pound was divided into 100 piastres, the five-piastre coin was therefore worth one French franc. We never called the coin anything other than a ‘franc’ for the whole time it was in circulation. People in some parts of the country went even further, calling the 10-piastre coin ‘two francs’ and the 25-piastre piece ‘five francs’.

These coins no longer had anything to do with the French franc, of course. Calling them ‘francs’ was pure colloquialism. The coins were inscribed in two languages, neither of which used the word ‘francs’. In French, the value was given in piastres, and in Arabic in qurush or gurush, a currency name that brings to mind the German groschen, from the Italian grosso [fat] — plural grossi — once used to describe thick coins.

The meaning had shifted over the centuries. The ‘fat one’ shrank until it became the smallest of small change. The one I knew was grey and weighed little, as though it were made of tin. And then one day, it just disappeared. Not because of some fiscal reform, but because its value collapsed.

For a long time, the Lebanese pound remained stable. In my youth, it hovered at around 30 US cents, which meant that a Lebanese ‘franc’ was worth around 1.5 cents, sometimes rising to close to two cents. But in the middle of the 1980s, the national currency collapsed. The Lebanese pound did eventually stabilise after its dizzying fall, but at a much lower rate. If our ill-fated ‘franc’ were still around, you would need more than 300 of them to buy one cent bearing Abraham Lincoln’s effigy. ‘Francs’ and piastres are no longer legal tender in Lebanon. The smallest unit of currency I have handled these last few years was worth 250 pounds, or 5000 ‘francs’.

So was our ‘franc’ a victim of the war? Not really. The currency’s slide had begun well before the conflict started. When I was at primary school in the late 1950s, I sometimes stopped at the local grocer, where a one-franc coin bought me chewing gum “made in the USA” or milk chocolate “made in Lebanon”. My father used to tell me that when he was a student in the mid-1930s, a Lebanese franc was a respectable sum — he could buy the newspaper for a piastre, have his hair cut for another, and eat lunch in his usual restaurant with the remaining three.

When I began working in the early 1970s, a five-piastre coin was only useful when you needed exact change; you could no longer actually buy anything with it. People mentioned it only to make a metaphorical point, for instance in the idiom ‘ma byesswa franc’, ‘it’s not worth a franc’ – scornfully applied sometimes to things, sometimes to people.

The phrase will most likely live on long after those of us who bought their first confectionary with the late lamented franc have gone.

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  1. #1 by Ali Gökan on March 6th, 2011

    I want to mention a coincidence (at least seemingly) I realized. In Turkish when we want to say something (or someone) is worthless we say “beş para etmez” which literally means “is not worth 5 dimes”. There is no phonetic similarity with your saying but the similarity in meaning is worth noting.

  2. #2 by Ali Gökan on March 6th, 2011

    My previous comment requires a correction. I used dime as a translation for “para”, which is an ottoman currency with a value of one tenth of a kurush. But in English, a dime is worth ten cents. I’m sorry for this error in translation.

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