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The Latin Monetary Union – 1865

Prior to 1860 the Germinal system was adopted to create a monetary community between Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland.  In 1803, the “germinal franc” (named after the month Germinal in the (revolutionary calendar) was established, creating a gold franc containing 290.32 mg of fine gold. From this point, gold and silver-based units circulated interchangeably on the basis of a 1:15.5 ratio between the values of the two metals (Bimetallism). This system continued until 1864, when all silver coins except the 5 franc piece were debased from 90% to 83.5% silver without the weights changing. It, however failed because these countries had to lower the fineness of their coins to curb the disappearance of silver coins.  There was no harmony between the countries.  The Swiss reduced their 2 franc coins and higher value coins to 800 thousandths.  Italy reduced their coins to 835 thousandths.  Due to the need for small coins, France overruled the Legislative Body and tentatively decided to reduce the fineness of 50 and 20 centime coins to 0.835 thousandths (law passed on the 25th May 1864).

Belgium leopold

Belgium gold coin from Latin Monatary Union - Leopold II

The story began when Belgium adopted the French franc in 1830. Switzerland harmonized its currency to the franc in 1848 and Italy joined in 1861, both retaining the names of their national currencies but adjusting their values to match the franc. In 1865, this arrangement was formalized as the Latin Monetary Union. Greece and Bulgaria joined in 1867, and a number of states (Spain, Romania, Austria, Finland, Venezuela, Serbia, Montenegro, San Marino and the Vatican) issued currency following the conventions without officially joining the Union.

The basic idea was that each member country would have identical coinage made from gold and silver. While the names of the individual currencies were kept, the weights were identical, so 5 French francs were worth exactly the same as 5 Italian lire and could be used through the Union like national currency (minus a 1.25% handling charge). Each country could mint as many coins as it wanted, there being no risk of inflation due to the intrinsic worth of the metal. The following coins were issued throughout the Union:

LMU units

Belgium used French gold for all its dealings and therefore made it legal tender in 1861.  The Belgian delegate remarked that because his country was situated between France, England, Holland and Germany it formed the perfect natural link for payments to these States.  Some were using gold and others silver.  The balance of the National Bank was suffering from the aftershocks of these actions which disrupted credit and trade.  Belgium, Italy and Switzerland therefore demanded adoption of the gold standard.  The agreement was signed reducing the fineness of coins worth less than 5 francs to 835 thousands.  The money supply was voluntarily limited.  Individuals could only make maximum payments of 50 francs.  Each country was also forbidden from printing more than 6 francs per capita.  A very simple system that Greece joined in 1868.

However, there were problems that eventually lead to failure. The exchange rate of gold to silver was fixed at 1:15.5, which soon turned out to over value silver significantly. The Union countries tried to unload their silver coins into other countries, so they could profit by turning them into gold. Speculators could buy 16 francs of silver, go to the Mint and strike four 5 franc coins which enabled them to go and buy a beautiful Napoleon. France’s gold was disappearing.

Germany shamelessly profited and benefited greatly from the situation.  German agents came to Paris and Brussels with silver ingots from the recent demonetisation of thalers and transformed them into 5 franc coins which were then converted into notes and then gold.  To put an end to these practices Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland limited (1874) and then soon after suspended (1876) the striking of écus. A larger problem was that there was also a second set of subsidiary silver coins for smaller amounts, issued by each country on its own and not fully convertible elsewhere. Even though these coins had a lower silver content than the primary coins, Union members were by law required to accept up to 100 units of them at face value per transaction, very much a loss-making proposition for the receiving side. Also, while the ending of silver convertibility stopped the minting of new silver coins, outstanding ones remained legal tender. With the advent of World War I and the massive financing strains involved, not to mention war between members of the Union, the system collapsed totally, although it remained in legal fiction until the end of the 1920s.

The United Kingdom entered discussions of  Britain joining the Latin Monetary Union. The proposal involved reducing the amount of gold in one pound sterling by less than 1% to make one pound equivalent to 25 Francs and also decimalising the currency. During the period of the Latin Monetary Union, the United Kingdom was already in a monetary union with territories now commonly known as the “Commonwealth” The gold standard of the British gold sovereign existed in these territories until the outbreak  World War I.

Maurice Hall

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