Plus Ça Change in France

The nation says au revoir to the franc and to “mademoiselle” and bonjourto a proposed new theme park—Napoleonland

Gone but not forgotten, the French franc
Gone but not forgotten, the French franc Courtesy of Flickr user djwudi

In the run-up to the April 22 French presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy has been promising a referendum to loosen labor policies he blames for the high unemployment rate in France. The goal is to emulate Germany, an idea that once would have seemed incroyable in a country where worker protections are as sacred as wine with dinner.

But people who love all things French—including the millions of travelers who continue to make France the number one tourist destination in the world—might be interested to note this trio of developments suggesting that change is on the horizon:

A few months ago, on February 7 to be exact, the franc officially went out of circulation. Introduced by French monarch Jean le Bon (1319-1364), it remained the coin of the realm—with occasional modifications, like the addition of the Vichy seal during the World War II German occupation—until 2002 when France adopted the (now distressed) euro. At that time a ten-year grace period went into effect so that people who stashed old bills under the mattress could exchange them for euros at a locked-in value of 6.56 francs for 1 euro, the going rate when France joined the European Union in 1999. But now hoarders and travelers who accumulated francs left over from past trips are stuck with them. Remember Antoine de Saint Exupéry and “The Little Prince” on the old 50-franc bill? Think of it as a souvenir.

The French honorific mademoiselle went the way of the franc last month when government offices were instructed to remove it from official documents because of sexist overtones inherent in a form of address based on marital status. With the single female distinction excised, only two choices remain: monsieur and madame. Whether common parlance comes to reflect mademoiselle’s demise is another question, not least because it’s sometimes used as a form of flattery for older women.

Yves Jégo, the mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Paris, is attempting to raise $255 million to construct a theme park based on the life and times of Napoleon. If his dream becomes a reality, Napoleonland will break ground in 2014 and go head-to-head with nearby Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992 to cries of sacré bleu from cultural purists but has since become Europe‘s top tourist site, visited by 15.6 million people last year. Given “Boney’s” stature and the pressing need for jobs in France, Napoleonland may get a warmer welcome, though it’s hard to imagine the attractions. The 100 Days in miniature? A Battle of the Nile son et lumière? The Bonaparte family on parade?

Honestly, the more things change in France, the more they really change.